Staff shortage leaves disabled Missourians without care

More than 500 Missourians with disabilities are waiting for services due to a shortage of caregivers. Without adequate staff, many in-home and group home service providers stopped taking clients from the state’s waiting list. The list has doubled since July and continues to grow.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused a haemorrhage of workers in an already short-staffed industry. In 2019, Missouri had a 50% turnover rate in the industry. The state Department of Mental Health is working to update the statistics, but a spokesperson said the pandemic has only worsened the caseload. And not enough new workers are waiting in the wings.

“Now it’s a crisis on top of a crisis,” Joy Steele said on Friday. Saint Louis on the airwaves. She is CEO of Willows Way, a disability care service in St. Charles.

People in the industry attribute the shortage to one main thing: a lack of competitive wages. Providers are often required to pay wages allowed by state-determined Medicaid reimbursement rates, and nowadays fast-food and retail chains often offer better wages than those rates.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has offered $375 million in additional funding for the fiscal year that begins in July. This would bring the starting wage for direct care providers to $15 per hour. Until then, direct care staff in Missouri starts at $12.39 per hour.

Jessica Bax, director of developmental disabilities for the Missouri Department of Mental Health, said she hopes the legislature will approve Parson’s proposal.

“We know the market is very competitive right now for labor,” she said. “We believe this is a significant increase and an investment beyond what is included in rates today.”

But some providers question whether Parson’s increase would even be enough. Through a fundraiser, Willows Way has raised her pay to $18 an hour. Steele said she still struggled to attract staff.

“I don’t think we’ve hit the magic salary,” Steele said.

Huge staffing shortage leaves more than 500 disabled Missourians waiting for services

Staff shortage leaves disabled Missourians without care

The shortage forced Willows Way to stop accepting new residential customers. And they are certainly not alone. Statewide, more than 2,000 vacancies for direct support professionals need to be filled, according to the Missouri Association of Rehabilitation Services. Some providers have had to close homes and end leases with customers, which has the effect of shutting down services. Some rely on overtime and temp agencies to fill the void.

Maddy Williams has been waiting eight months for an independent placement in a supportive living facility. She is 18 and has autism. Her mother, Angie, stays home to care for her, but she says she has to start working to support her family.

“You ask for help, and it’s just not there,” said Angie Williams.

Whether it’s a group home or in-home services, these programs typically operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That’s a lot of hours to fill.

Steele said Willows Way needs 1,000 more hours a week right now. To fill shifts, overtime is tripled. Sometimes Steele is the one covering the shifts. She sees no alternative.

“We’re not an industry that can shut down,” Steele said.

Karen Mabins has worked as a direct support professional for 30 years. She’s seen with her own eyes how badly the lack of pay hurts the industry, but she still considers hard work a blessing.

“I couldn’t pay you enough to treat someone well, to have a good heart and to be caring and concerned. It has no monetary value,” Mabins said. “But you would like to be compensated as best you can.”

Mabins said she doesn’t want her clients to end up in a congregate living setting in a hospital or large institution, which she says could happen if staff shortages worsen. Mabins believes that Missourians with disabilities belong in community homes.

“I don’t know who should be ringing the alarm bells and saying what a precious entity this is,” she said.

Saint Louis live” tells you the stories of Saint-Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenské and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The sound engineer is Aaron Dorr.

About Antoine L. Cassell

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