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The Human Cost of Help Wanted
Episode 3314th September 2021 • The Hingham 'Cast • Ally Donnelly
00:00:00 00:28:12

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A severe work force shortage is forcing nonprofit human service organizations into turning away vulnerable clients with disabilities. The pandemic has exacerbated an already critical problem. In this episode we profile Beth and Cormac McDaid of Hingham. Cormac turned 22 during the pandemic, but his mom, Beth, has not been able to find a suitable day program that has room for Cormac. She worries she's not giving him opportunities to learn and grow while she is home with him. She also needs to be able to work to help support her family, but with no one to care for Cormac during the day, she is in an untenable position. We also talk with Chris White of Road to Responsibility. The Marshfield nonprofit serves adults with disabilities and is only able to take on about half the amount of their pre-pandemic client numbers because they simply don't have enough staff. Michael Weekes, of the Providers' Council also weighs in. His group advocates for the needs of providers who he says must be paid a higher wage to entice them to stay in the industry that cares for our most vulnerable.


Transcripts

Ally Donnelly 0:00

Welcome to the Hingham Cast. I’m your host Ally Donnelly. The Hingham Cast is hyper- local, looking at the pandemic, politics and everything in between--through the lens of one small town, my town, here on Boston’s South Shore.

But the issues we explore are universal. Like what’s happening to our workforce.

I’ve been reading about and experiencing staff shortages. But I was thinking about the issue mostly for restaurants and retail. Until I saw a post from Beth McDaid on the Hingham Hub Facebook page. She was looking for someone to help with her gentle giant, her 22-year-old son Cormac.

Ally Donnelly

What's today?

Cormac

Wednesday.

Ally Donnelly

What are you going to do today?

Cormac

Chores, art, walk and swim pools

Ally Donnely

Cormac is six foot 2, a grinning teddy bear, who engages easily. He loves dinosaurs and computers and volunteers at Harbor media. He was diagnosed with autism at 13 months old.

Ally Donnelly

For people who are listening to the podcast, and they want to know about you? What would you want them to know?

Cormac

About animals and stuff?

Ally Donnelly

But what would you want them to know about you?

Cormac

I'm a man

Ally Donnelly

A man who wants to go to college?

Cormac

I’m the man who wants to go to college.

Ally Donnely 1:23

When people living with disabilities in Massachusetts turn 22, they transition into adulthood and out of free public schooling. It’s a moment his mom Beth has been preparing for, for years. The plan was always that Cormac would graduate Hingham High and then transition into a day program with a South Shore non-profit. But, Covid hit and Cormac aged out of the system in a pandemic. Beth, an artist and aide to senior citizens, scrambled to create a schedule for him at home for as long as she could.

Beth McDaid

But, after six or seven months, Cormac is getting bored, he's getting bored with me, he's getting bored with the schedule, I think he's getting bored with being at home. He wants, he keeps telling me he wants to go to college. And I can tell he wants to do more, and be with people and be more interactive, and I just can't give it to him. Now I'm just treading water trying to figure out what I can do for him.

Ally Donnelly

Treading water because Cormac is now 22 and she needs to find him a day program so she and her husband can work. But the pandemic is hitting non-profits hard and they’ve been forced to turn vulnerable clients away. For a variety of reasons we’ll dig into, people working in human services have left or been pushed out of the field in droves. That means there isn’t enough staff to go back to pre-pandemic full capacity.

Beth McDaid

And I was told right up front, from the two programs I had chosen that it was going to be a difficult road back.

Ally Donnelly

I’m visiting the McDaids on a recent afternoon, sitting at their kitchen table. Their friend Kim Cross has come over too. Her daughter Jenna has Down Syndrome and will soon age out of the system as well. She worries she’ll have the same problems.

Kim Cross

It gives me concern because you want your child to be able to have as fulfilling and rewarding life as possible. And the fact that those opportunities aren’t there, right now, it is of concern.

Ally Donnelly

Beth was told by her top choices they likely wouldn’t be able to get Cormac in for another year.

Beth McDaid

It's grueling. It's really grueling.

Ally Donnelly

She went to the state for help and says they tried to get her a professional aide to come to the house, but no luck.

Beth McDaid

They put the ad out. They couldn't find anybody. Nobody responded to the ad that's why they asked me if my oldest boy would want to help out and they would pay him.

Ally Donnelly

Cormac’s brother Liam is helping out, but the state only pays for 15 hours a week and it’s not enough. Beth says though she has been able to find a few programs with openings, they’re not a good fit for Cormac.

Beth McDaid

some of these programs are just, you know, for low functioning kids. They're not for the kids like Jenna and Cormac, who fall in that middle category. They're not low functioning, but they're not high functioning. They're in that middle category, they want to do something, they want to be somebody. And they just don't know how.

Cormac

Ham and cheese

Ally Donelly

What makes it your favorite?

Cormac

Because it’s my favorite

Ally Donnelly

So tell me the step you did to get it there

Cormac

Put on salami, put on ham, and put on cheese. Put on yogurt, put on apple, put on banana, and put on this.

Ally Donnelly

All on top of your ham sandwich?

Cormac

Yeah

Beth McDaid 4:37

And people are saying to me, well just put them in that program. At least you have him somewhere and then when these programs open up, switch him up. And that sounds easy, that sounds great, but if I put him into a program right now that I didn't want him in, but they have an opening, I would lose his place in the launch program and at the friendship home, they would take him off the list. And he would have to start over.

Ally Donnelly

What do you worry about?

Beth McDaid

I worry about the fact that I'm losing a complete year on giving him a chance to be all that he can be. And I'm losing that year, and frankly I'm an artist, I'm not a special-ed director, I never took courses, I'm not a teacher. He wants it so bad right now, and I just can't give it to him and I think that kills me. It kills me because I just don't know what I'm gonna do with him.

That's my biggest fear is dying and not having him taken care of, although I know Liam will be there for him. But it's scary. It's scary. It's hard enough being a parent of typical kids, and making sure they grow up without too many problems. But then to have a special needs kid, it's just a whole different ball of wax. It really is. It's scary. And I'll tell you, it's a slap in the face when, and it's more of a slap in the face to him than to me.

Ally Donnelly 6:10 [[BREAK]]

Let’s take a break here. If you like the podcast, follow us on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen and feel free to write a review. And please, please share us with a friend, we need your support for community journalism.

Ally Donnelly 6:27

Let me introduce my next guests. Michael Weekes is head of the Providers’ Council, a trade organization that advocates for and addresses human service issues. Michael, welcome.

Michael Weekes

Well, thank you.

Ally Donnelly

I also want to welcome Chris White. He's the head of the Marshfield nonprofit road to responsibility. RTR supports adults with disabilities in a variety of settings, day programs, residential services, and social services. Hi, Chris.

Chris White

Hi, Ally. Thanks for having me today.

Ally Donnelly

Thank you. So I want to start with you, describe if you would, the clients you have and the role RTR staff play in their lives.

Chris White

Wow. Well, Road to Responsibility serves a wide spectrum of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including folks with autism spectrum disorders, and acquired brain injuries.

Ally Donnelly

Okay. And the second part of that question was, what role does your staff play in their lives?

Chris White

Our staff, for many of the people we support, if not the most important people in their lives, pretty darn close. Because they're with them, in some cases, 24 hours a day.

Ally Donnelly

So how has this pandemic-tied staffing shortage affected you?

Chris White

Oh, it's impacted us in multiple ways. But most importantly, it's impacted families and the people we support. First off, it's been extremely difficult, as you're probably aware Ally, day programs in Massachusetts, shut down for in-person services for months last year, at the start of the COVID pandemic. And reopening has proven to be extremely difficult, primarily because of the staffing crisis. Right now, we're only serving about half the people that we had been serving in our day services prior to COVID.

Ally Donnelly 8:31

And that's because you don't have enough staff.

Chris White

Correct.

Ally Donnelly

Give me the numbers.

Chris White

In our entire system, we have about 835 staff positions. Of that 835, we have over 200 vacant positions right now.

Ally Donnelly

That's right about a quarter of your staff.

Chris White

Yep.

Ally Donnelly

Why, what's happened to them?

Chris White

A whole lot of things. First, you know, our sector is heavily dependent on women, about 80 percent of my staff are women. And, you know, for all the progress that's been made over the decades around, you know, child care and equality, moms still tend to do the majority of the child rearing. And so as you're probably also aware, a lot of daycare centers went out of business during the pandemic. And those that are left don't have the capacity to serve all the kids. And there were also schools, you know, schools were in flux all of last year, and so that many of our employees with children simply weren't able to come in because they had to look after their kids.

Ally Donnelly

So, so the 200 staffers down, you've only been able to bring back 50% of your clients in the day programs? How does that play out for the families you serve?

Chris White

It means that a burden has been shifted. And that's an awful way of putting it because I know these families don't view their adult children with disabilities as burdens, but it adds responsibilities to the families that they haven't needed to shoulder for, in some cases a long time. And for families of people turning 22, who are looking to get into adult services for the first time. For many of them, it means waiting indefinitely. And that's the tragedy.

Ally Donnelly

You know, we're hearing about that tragedy firsthand, from Beth and Kim and Cormac. I also want to ask you about how does it affect the staffers you do have, and how you're spending your money, you know, your funding?

Chris White

Well, in terms of how it's impacting our existing staff, is, in as I said, its increased their stress levels considerably. And, and frankly, we've seen an increase in burnout. We've lost many of them because they just got burned out on the constant pressure of trying to provide, you know, 24-hour care to individuals during a pandemic.

Ally Donnelly

And what does it do to your budget to, you know, for these folkes.

Chris White

And budgetarily it's, it's brutal. It is significantly ratcheted up our overtime expenditures. And we're spending ridiculous amounts of money on temporary relief staffing agencies,

Ally Donnelly

So money that you might have put into services or you know, things that could make the lives of people with disabilities and their families better. You're now spending on hard cost of temps and overtime.

Chris White

Exactly. Just trying to keep things going for as many people as we can.

Ally Donnelly:

I want to pause you there and bring in Michael weeks. Michael is RTR’s situation, unique among providers?

Michael Weekes

Unfortunately, Ally, it is not unique. In fact, RTR’s situation is as bad and perhaps not as bad in some cases, but the situation amongst our provider community is pretty dire. And I think, you know, when we looked at a survey that was done by one of our colleagues, they saw vacancy rates at about averaging 36% for certain populations. So what Chris’ experiences is right in line and perhaps maybe a shape better than others and, and that's, that's really sad to hear that, because it does affect not only the people who can access services, but those employees who remain, are now picking up additional responsibilities, and are working at breakneck speeds to try to keep up the demand, which, unfortunately, is just going to be too much for them to be able to manage for a long period of time.

Ally Donnelly

Yeah, you know, COVID, on so many fronts has been kind of the great exacerbator. Human services already faced a staffing shortage. So what did COVID do?

Michael Weekes

. In fact, from the period of:

Ally Donnelly:

So what, like as we face it now, what's the problem?

Michael Weekes

Obviously, we need to get the COVID situation resolved in a way that people can safely come back to work. Second thing is we've got to have more people in our workforce. And for those who are in our workforce, particularly the human services sector, we have to be able to retain them. You know, one of the things that Chris talked about was the fact that people are burning out because of the additional responsibilities. And I would add that not only is it additional responsibilities, but the pay that they receive is not kept up with the pay of others in our Massachusetts economy, which as you know, is an economy in which is really important that we attract and maintain and retain the best and the brightest in order to serve as folks who need it.

Ally Donnelly

Yeah, paint me a picture of that, what's the average pay scale? Or can you give me a sense of pay scale and how that lines up with other things?

Michael Weekes

Sure. Well, let me try this. Here's one way of looking at it. We had the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth public policy did a few studies for us at the Provider's Council. And one of the things we wanted to know is where do we line up in terms of median wage scales and so they looked at all human service workers in Massachusetts and all workers in Massachusetts and did a comparison. And what they found that the median wage for human service workers in Massachusetts was about 27,000 and you compare that with the median wage for all workers, which is 40,500. So you right there got a delta of $13,500. That's a huge, significant difference. Our advocacy groups, our providers, have been doing all they can to pour more money into salaries as much as they possibly can. But they can do so much because they're under contracts with the state and those contracts are not elastic, to the point where people can, you know, raise their prices with the state, like others can do. So for example, you can go to a local store, and perhaps your local donut shop, or your local supermarket can change prices and say, hey, we're gonna raise wages $2-$3 an hour, we're not able to do that with contracts that least last for two years.

Ally Donnelly:

Meaning that the State Department of development services and or the state sets the rate at which the providers get reimbursed for the services. And it's a set rate that is negotiated. So it's not like we could say, just like your store example. Okay, avocados are becoming more expensive. But we also want to pay our workers more. So we're going to charge you x for avocados now to make up the difference, the providers can't do that.

Michael Weekes

Exactly. They're in contracts that are at least two years in the making. Though we've tried and continue to do that. And in fact, we are talking with the state and the legislature right now about using some of the ARPA funds in order to supplement some of the salaries that are being provided. Yes.

Ally Donnelly

yeah. So ARPA funds for folks who don't know is the, is federal money that's coming in, I think Massachusetts is somewhere in the ballpark of about $60 million in this latest round and they have to decide how to spend it, when to spend it, what to do with it.

Michael Weekes

Sure. We think the important thing to do is to take care of Massachusetts workers who are providing some essential duties here in Massachusetts and doing a phenomenal job.

Ally Donnelly

Yeah. Chris, I want to bring you back in for a moment. Give me your pay scale and you know, what people have said about that, what your, staffers.

Chris White

Well, someone coming to us with no experience and no significant educational background, they'd be coming in starting it with direct care work at $15 an hour.

Ally Donnelly

So, $15 an hour, I mean they could work at Target or McDonald's or get the same, if not more.

Chris White

Exactly, it does not cut it whatsoever, especially as we're seeing inflation it's becoming more of a burden every day. And so, as Michael alluded to, and we're looking at any way we can to try to increase the pay for our staff, including using some one time money in the hopes that our estate contracts will eventually catch up.

Ally Donnelly

So there's money available, it's just will it be prioritized?

Michael Weekes

Well, I think you hit it right on the nose, Ally. There is money that's there, we get that to make sure that the priorities are in the right place. And it is our belief that we ought to be directing money to take care of people who are taking care of our most vulnerable. So we're talking about, you know, our elderly residents, people with disabilities, those who are have challenges with mental health, substance addictions. There's a whole range of people that are being served by the Commonwealth. But we ought to be directing money to take care of them and to take care of them better, they deserve it. And we have the skills in order to provide that service, but we need to have the workforce and I can't think of a better use of money right now to help us to take care of those who need help and taking care of themselves.

Ally Donnelly:

Let’s take a quick break here to thank our media partners at the Hingham Anchor. All news is local! For more news on our community and to see some great pictures of Cormac and Jenna and the faces and families behind these very struggles for care, head to hinghamanchor.com. Okay, let’s get back to the conversation and hear about ways you can help.

Ally Donnelly

Chris, you interact with families every day you interact with clients every day. If you had the legislature and Governor Baker right in front of you, what would you say?

Chris White

I'd say we need more help. And because there are people who are suffering out there who desperately need to either begin services or return to services that have been helping them in some cases for many years. And that which they rely upon, for accessing the community in a safe way for having jobs and having stability in their lives.

Ally Donnelly

If this isn't addressed, and this crisis continues, what will the picture be for people coming into services, so to speak. All of the people with disabilities that turned 22 and need these programs?

Chris White

Well, Ally, I had a phone conversation this morning with a family who was desperate their son had just turned 22. They've gotten funding from the state for day services, but they've been told that the soonest their son will be able to be served will be a year. And in the parents aren't able to work as much, because they one of them has to be home with him.

Ally Donnelly:

Yeah. I mean, it's a very familiar story. So, it's the story that Beth told us earlier.

Michael Weekes

And that's a point that I think that people don't really understand is fully. It's not only the people that require the services that aren’t able to get the services, but then the people that care for them aren't able to go to work, they aren't able to be as productive because they have to stay at home and care for their loved one. And when that happens, that affects the overall economy as well, because they are not as productive. So, and when those people aren't working, then they're not able to provide the economic activity in their communities and shop and go to the store to local communities, because they're no longer working. So there's an effect. It's a really, it goes around in a in a circle here about how this affects more than just the people who directly are not getting services.

Ally Donnelly

Yeah. Is there anything we the general public can do?

Michael Weekes

Part of it is just being able to talk with their legislators, and explaining how important it is that we take care of this human service sector. There's 180,000 jobs in Massachusetts that are connected with human services, is huge. Virtually every community has hit human services or human services workers and how important they are and the people that they care for. So I think it's important to talk to the local reps to make sure that this becomes prioritized as an issue that affects their community and affects us as a state as well.

Chris White

I would just add to that, that also pushing for rational immigration reform is really important. For the, at least the past 30 years, the human service workforce challenge has been partially met by great workers coming to us from other countries. And as Michael alluded to, we have a demographic problem here in Massachusetts, where we're getting gray fast. And there isn't the younger population, replacing all of the folks that are retiring every day. And so we need immigration to supplement the ranks of workers. And frankly, some of the best workers we've ever had at Road to Responsibility have come to us from other countries.

Ally Donnelly

And you can't have them now because of freezes on visas?

Chris White

Yep, freezes on visas that started in the Trump administration and And now in the current administration is just not taking any action to rectify the problem. I’ve got three employees that are, have been stuck in the Philippines for two and three years and haven't been able to get back even though they have valid visas. They can't get back in the country because of State Department rules that were instituted in the previous administration.

Ally Donnelly:

And there aren't enough Americans filling the gap. Exactly.

Ally Donnelly:

Let’s take a break here. We got some great texts and comments about how much people missed us while we were on vacation. Thank you! To get the latest news from us and a once-a-week note letting you know when new episodes drop, sign up for our emails at the hinghamcast.com. And bonus, only people who are signed up for our emails can win our raffle prices: gift certificates, food, wine, movie tickets, Hingham ‘Cast Koozies. Hello! Don’t miss out.

d eliminate that disparity by:

Michael Weekes:

Yeah, you can understand that just because of the pay disparity that we've mentioned. And one of the things else that the council is doing is pushing a bill called the fair pay bill, so that the folks who were in our sector get a pay that's comparable to what other sectors whether they work for the state or in the healthcare. That the pay that they get is comparable to that, so that they have a fair chance and they can make a rational choice about coming to work in human services and taking care of the people that you've talked to and others throughout the state?

Ally Donnelly

Yeah, I mean, these critical jobs that are very difficult. If I could take a job in fast food or retail and make the same amount of money without the stress and level of responsibility, I'm more apt to do that.

Michael Weekes

And you may not need a college education. Many of our folks have college educations. And one of the other bills we are pushing is a loan repayment bill, to help people who want to come into human services, pay off the loans, because with the salaries they're getting, it's really hard to say I'm going to come here I've got a $33,000 student debt, graduating out of college, it's hard for them to make that decision. Hopefully they do and some of them still do, because they really want to make a difference and we applaud them and we support them on that. But we should help them out as well, because what they're doing is helping all of us in the Commonwealth by working in a nonprofit sector.

Ally Donnelly

Beth McDaid says you can’t put a price on Cormac’s future and devastated money is standing in the way.

Beth McDaid

These people work so hard, with these kids and they know what they're doing. And they're good at what they do and they deserve better.

Ally Donnelly [Close-out]

Thank you to my podcasting partner, the incredibly talented and thoughtful producer editor Kristin Keefe, Our intern, Hingham’s own Cameron Baker. Our website was designed by Donna Mavromates and her team at Mavro Creative. I’m Ally Donnelly. Talk to you soon!

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