Incompass Human Services was pleased to receive a grant of $9,000 from the Greater Lowell Community Foundation (GLCF) towards the purchase of rapid test kits at the height of the Omicron surge. The immediate availability of this critical resource made a world of difference for both our direct care staff and the vulnerable population of individuals that they are supporting in our programs and residential homes.
Without the generosity of funders, such as GLCF, we would not have been able to sustain an essential workforce comprised of direct support professionals, program nurses, and managers over these past two years. Looking back to the late summer of 2020, we were in the midst of a sudden suspension of day programs and community-based activities. GLCF stepped in during that time, allowing us to continue to provide high-quality residential care and virtual supports to our community.
“Throughout this pandemic, we have managed to keep the number of positive cases relatively low. Just as we were settling into the idea that we could return to some type of normal within programs, Omnicron unexpectedly overwhelmed us. Knowing that we have the support of an incredible partner like Greater Lowell Community Foundation has provided a tremendous amount of relief. Their continued support of our mission does not go unnoticed. ” says CEO Jean Phelps.
Staffing crisis. Worker shortage.“The Great Resignation.” Over the past year, a variation of these phrases has been presented in news stories and op-eds to citizens of the Commonwealth, describing the challenges that businesses are facing to return services to pre-pandemic levels. In the human services industry, we were facing a “workforce crisis” for years before COVID began. Low rates of reimbursement and a shrinking labor pool had driven industry vacancy rates to 40% or more by the end of 2019…then came COVID.
Today our programs cannot operate at full capacity because we do not have enough staff to serve those in need. We have a long waitlist of individuals and families who are frustrated with waiting to return to the programs that we had to close because of pandemic restrictions in 2020. Others are seeking placement into a program for the first time having graduated from special education and are seeking adult supports and services. As someone who has dedicated my entire 36-year career to this work, this scenario is heartbreaking; for want of staff, Incompass would be serving these folks.
Given that the human services workforce provides support to one out of every ten people in Massachusetts, the current staffing shortages in our field have real consequences for the people we support. Incompass Human Services has provided critical supports to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities throughout greater Lowell and greater Lawrence for over 65 years. Every Incompass staff person, who we proudly call our Care Champions, no matter their role, is motivated to make a positive impact on our community. Their dedication and focus ensure that we can deliver on our mission to empower the people we support, even under the most challenging of circumstances. But Incompass (and other similar organizations) are facing unprecedented challenges to recruit and hire Care Champions to deliver the supports that the people we serve deserve.
Right now, the path to resuming a full complement of services is still not clear, and our ability to impact compensation to incentivize employment in human services is limited. While our highly skilled staff are dedicated – and we do enjoy a healthy rate of employee longevity – the fact is that the pay scale in the human services field is not competitive. Even after the infusion of short-term governmental COVID-based relief funding, we don’t have the ability to adequately compensate our current workforce or hire new workers. Approximately 98% of funding for Incompass Human Services comes from state contracts with direct billing to the state, and those reimbursement rates are determined through a rate-setting process by the state of Massachusetts. Ultimately those rates determine the salaries we can pay our Care Champions.
While we have been fortunate to receive American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds that were disbursed to front-line employees in the form of one-time retention bonuses and other limited compensation the ARPA funds are short-term. To have a meaningful and permanent impact on the workforce, funding to raise salaries must be given permanently, or we will continue to struggle to recruit and retain staff.
Consider that the poverty level for a family of four in Massachusetts is $26,508 according to the 2021 MassHealth income standards. And the median wage for a Massachusetts human services worker is $27,736 according to the Providers’ Council. Given that the Providers’ Council report cites the median wage in all other industries in Massachusetts as $40,557, recruiting staff for this work – an essential, person-facing job that is both rewarding and demanding – is becoming an impossible task.
Keep in mind, that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the consumer price index (CPI) increased by 7.5% in January from a year ago, so the wage gap is growing. While companies in the private sector can offer more generous compensation packages to attract new workers human services organizations like Incompass that are tasked with caring for those who are most vulnerable are not able to “charge more” or “give smaller portions” to offset costs or offer competitive compensation. As a result, too many people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who rely on our services continue to be without a program.
Through it all, the Care Champions at Incompass Human have been the most awe-inspiring group of people I have ever been around. While we rightly acknowledge and show gratitude to the front-line workers who have been working in our community throughout the pandemic, those direct support professionals who do this work are invisible heroes. They are not seen on the nightly news under their PPE, they are not celebrated as the “essential” workers that they are, they are not even recognized by the federal department of labor as an occupation worthy of classification. Yet the 300 Incompass Care Champions do their jobs because they genuinely and deeply care about the people they support and appreciate the relationships they have forged over the years.
We cannot keep asking the human services workforce to accept a wage that devalues who they are and what they do. We cannot minimize the role that direct support professionals fill in our communities. We cannot ignore the fact that these hourly workers are skilled professionals who are caregivers, skill-builders, activity specialists, meal preparers, and lifesavers. We cannot keep messaging families and caregivers that we do not have the staff to support their loved ones to be served in one of our programs.
We must truthfully and realistically acknowledge that in order to do right by persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities, our seniors, people with physical disabilities, people suffering from substance abuse, families facing food insecurity, we must first do what’s right for the people who support them.
Mahatma Gandhi’s words resonate with me “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members”. How will we be measured if we don’t lift up the workforce that supports the most vulnerable?
For a population that typically struggles with social isolation, what is their “new normal” going to look like as COVID restrictions lift across the state? Strive2Thrive program staff at Incompass Human Services have been working to evolve the program, to better meet the needs of the population of young adults on the autism spectrum without an intellectual disability that we support.
From the beginning, socialization was a core aspect of Strive2Thrive, as well as peer mentorship and self-advocacy. Connecting with peers in their age group while building the skills they need to participate in recreational activities has been an invaluable asset for participants. Such activities acted as a bridge between social isolation and ultimately leading more full, productive, and satisfying lives in the community. Activities that initially drew participants to this program included game show nights, escape rooms, and a zombie scavenger hunt. Even a silent disco that was postponed last year – a sensory-friendly dance where participants listen to music on wireless headphones.
However, access to these types of activities was unfortunately halted by the onset of the pandemic. In response, Alicia Pagan, program manager, and Ben Waithe, ASD Specialist, got creative with a hybrid program model that utilized both in-person and virtual supports.
“Our participants are eagerly anticipating in-person connections, but now that we’ve removed a barrier to virtual sessions, we see a future where S2T participants are more engaged than ever before, and our reach will be only wider.” Pagan notes that participants will get so much more out of the community-based experiences because they are also able to connect with their peer mentors over Zoom. “Now that participants and mentors don’t need to rely on time during our community events to connect, they’re able to further immerse themselves in the social recreation!”
With everything from healthcare to education being transitioned to remote supports, program staff were concerned about “Zoom fatigue”. There was an enhanced focus on creating unique, interactive experiences with the resources available. Virtual concerts, road trips, and Netflix parties were huge hits. As well as themed trivia nights – incorporating fan favorites such as Star Wars and Harry Potter.
While the pandemic has undoubtedly brought challenges, it has also created room for new ways of thinking. Going forward supports to be included in the proposed service model will include life coaching, self-advocacy training, and group recreational activities. And what does Pagan think about these developments? “There is no substitute for being in the community, so we’re going to embrace the hybrid model. And personally, I can’t wait to see the impact.”
Today is voting day across the country, and polling stations around the nation and across our region are bustling with activity! Given the work that we do, and the hundreds of people and families we actively support, civic engagement is obviously core to our culture and mission. The work we do has a profound and positive impact on our communities!
Just a reminder that if you’re a registered voter and intend to vote today in Massachusetts, polls will be open until 8 PM and you can easily determine your polling location on the Massachusetts website. I know that a number of you have already voted, either through early voting or by mail, and you can check the status of your mail-in ballot here.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the intense passion that the election cycle has generated across the political spectrum. But Incompass Human Services is a 501(c)(3) organization, meaning that our organization will never engage in politics, endorse a candidate, or support a campaign. I just want you to know that the act of voting itself is not a partisan issue, and I support your right to participate no matter which candidates you may support.
Two of the greatest aspects of this organization are our diversity and our unwavering commitment to the people we serve. We’re #CareChampions for crying out loud! And because of that, I think – no, I know – that nothing will get in our way of delivering on our mission. You have exemplified the #ForEachOther mindset that has enabled us to continue to be there for those who need us most – when they need us most.
Also, let’s not forget we’re still in the midst of a pandemic! As Dan pointed out in our bulletin on Friday, both Chelmsford and Lawrence are classified as “high-risk” communities. Governor Baker announced new restrictions just yesterday aimed to slow down the spread, as COVID-19 numbers continue to rise. So if you are voting today, please be sure that you are doing so safely. Wear a mask. Social distance. Wash your hands.
It’s an honor to lead such a talented and passionate group of Care Champions. Keep up the great work, everyone!