Residents of disabled NJ group homes suffer as aides miss pay

Advocates for New Jerseyans with disabilities and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle continued their push this week for higher wages for home health aides who make everyday life possible for some of the most fragile residents on the plan. state medical.

At Wednesday’s Department of Human Services budget hearing, Deputy Carol Murphy, D-Burlington, said she was ‘bombarded’ by families begging for help as staffing shortages affected quality lives of thousands of state residents with developmental disabilities.

Murphy used the hearing to rally support for home health aides – known in the industry as direct support professionals, or DSPs – who attend to daily needs including bathing, dressing and feeding. 24 hours a day. It is a grueling job for which they are underpaid, the defenders said.

The state has approved three rate increases for aides since 2019, with another scheduled for January 2023. The total four will add an additional $4.75 an hour for each worker, bringing the current median wage to 17, $86 per hour, depending on the state. .

“These investments are moving the needle. In the latest National DSP Salary Survey, New Jersey is among the top five states for DSP salary and among the top three states with the lowest turnover rates,” DHS Commissioner Sarah Adelman said in an emailed statement. .

“In the next survey, I am confident that we will do even better and that New Jersey will continue to lead the way in caring for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

But advocates and families said more needed to be done.

Paul Aronsohn, New Jersey's ombudsman for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities and their families, visited one of the group homes at the Eastern Christian Children's Retreat.

Average salaries for assistants fall below federal poverty levels and most staff work two or three jobs, according to the latest 2017 report to the US president on the “direct support workforce crisis of America”.

The system has long been strained with the low wages and long hours that caused high turnover even before the pandemic. The current labor shortage has compounded the problem.

Travel to communities is interrupted, as is therapy and other essential services. Even trips home to see family have slowed due to the staff crisis.

Catherine Chin is the executive director of the Alliance for the Enhancement of Disabled Citizens, a trade group for businesses that run homes and day programs. She surveys businesses monthly and said day programs are operating at 62% of pre-pandemic levels, mostly due to understaffing. She said about 21% of people in the community are stuck at home rather than participating in the programs they rely on.

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Department of Social Services spokesman Tom Hester said 344 day program sites, or 94 per cent, were open in April, allowing about 7,920 people to participate in programs offering socialization and occupational therapy. in person or hybrid”. He said an additional 624 people participated in the remote programs.

But that’s not all, Chin said.

“The number of open doors is just one measure. But how often do they walk through those doors? How much time can they spend receiving services? They maybe only come once or twice a week due to lack of staff, whereas in 2018 they came five times a week,” Chin said.

“Overall usage is down about 22%,” Hester said.

Meanwhile, home-based providers — often the same companies that run day programs — have had to consolidate group homes and juggle employees between day programs and homes, where coverage is thinnest.

“They’re really struggling, working two, three shifts in a row,” Aura MP Kenny Dunn, R-Morris, said during Tuesday’s Disability Caucus, a bipartisan forum.

Adult center supervisor, Lynne Hewitt-Delohery as Peggy Brarman walks her daughter Melissa Christiana, 44, back to her van after visiting the North Jersey Elk Developmental Disabilities Agency in Clifton.

The average starting salary for direct support professionals in New Jersey was about $12 per hour, or $24,960 per year, in 2019, according to a report by state Ombudsman for the Disabled, Paul Aronsohn.

Agencies pay a minimum of $15 to $16.50 an hour, said Valerie Sellers, CEO of the New Jersey Association of Community Providers, a trade group that represents more than 150 agencies in the state.

Still, it doesn’t compete with employers across the state, said Celeste Smith, associate executive director of LADACIN Network, an agency that works in Ocean and Monmouth counties.

Homes and facilities agree they’ve had to settle for fewer helpers and higher employee turnover, which is holding back progress in therapy and socialization.

Chin appreciates the additional increases coming from the state budget, but she said federal money could go a long way in helping this community, which has been hit harder than most during the pandemic.

“I advocate an increase to help our staff use US bailout funds. There’s $3 billion we could use to help restart day programs and help residences [programs] move again,” Chin said. “It’s a one-time fund, but we live day to day here. We have to start, and everything would help.

Gene Myers covers disability and mental health for and the USA Today Network. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @myersgene

Jennifer C. Burleigh