ALBANY, N.Y. — A staffing crisis at residential facilities that serve those with intellectual and developmental disabilities is costing more than $100 million a year to handle the fallout from the flood of individuals leaving those jobs, according to a recent survey conducted by New York Disability Advocates.

The survey captured more than 50% of the industry’s stakeholders, confirming that low pay and difficult working conditions are exacerbating the widespread closure of facilities, including many run by the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities.

“The statistics are rather sobering,” said Erik Geizer, CEO of the Arc New York, the state’s largest nonprofit organization serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

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Geizer noted that there is a 35% annual staff turnover rate and that is being compounded by the roughly 20% vacancy rate for the “direct support professionals” who provide the unique services.

In addition, 40% of providers have closed or reduced programs in the past several years.

“That’s pretty sobering because the number of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is pretty stable. It’s not going down,” he said. “This is as bad as I’ve seen the field. I’ve never seen things so bad.”

Geizer said the quality of care is also suffering as a result of the labor shortage — in an industry where clients do better when the workers helping them are familiar faces. The program shutdowns also have led to many parents and caretakers of individuals with developmental disabilities needing to quit their jobs to care for their loved ones.

With so many workers leaving the industry — where the rate of pay is in line with fast-food restaurants and retail stores — the additional costs of retraining new workers, including many of whom may not remain in the jobs, is depleting the limited amount of money set aside for caregiving.

“We don’t often talk about the actual cost of our staffing crisis,” said Tom McAlvanah, president of the New York Disability Advocates and executive director of the Interagency Council of Developmental Disabilities. “Provider agencies are spending millions of dollars to combat turnover of direct support staff. Investing those resources into competitive wages and workforce initiatives that promote retention of essential staff would help stabilize our system of supports and ensure continuity of care for New Yorkers with I/DD.”

In January, Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration announced it had applied for $2.2 billion in federal aid to strengthen the home care workforce, including implementing a “data-driven” strategy for recruiting OPWDD workers.

According to the Public Employees Federation, OPWDD’s civil service workforce declined by more than 10,000 workers — to just under 20,000 — between 1990 and last year. But most of the care in that industry is provided by nonprofit service agencies.

OPWDD has recently acknowledged that “like most human services organizations across the country” it is facing “a workforce shortage of crisis proportions worsened by the COVID pandemic.”

The agency said it has needed to implement “emergency measures to ensure the safety of people living in a small number of group homes that are unable to retain or recruit sufficient staffing levels.”

In the past three years, 130 OPWDD-operated group homes across the state were “temporarily suspended” due to staff vacancies, the agency said. The nonprofit organizations providing those same services have been forced to implement similar shutdowns and suspension of programs.

Group home workers have said mandatory overtime has contributed to additional departures — retirements and resignations — and it’s not unusual for some employees to be required to work shifts of more than 30 hours.

In addition to paying out more than $1 billion in bonuses to workers employed by nonprofit providers — money from the American Rescue Plan Act — the state agency also has added a 5.4% “cost-of-living adjustment for nonprofit provider agencies to address inflation and other fiscal pressures, such as the need to enhance direct care, support and clinical staff compensation.”

But stakeholders in the industry say those measures have not led to any significant shifts in the workforce crisis.

© 2022 Times Union
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