Jobs requiring only a high school education don’t often come with signing bonuses — or any incentives — especially during an economic crisis.

That’s what distinguishes an ad that recently appeared on the Facebook page of the Arc Northern Chesapeake Region.

“Now hiring,” it reads in magnified letters at the top.

Then, a few lines later: “Up to $600 sign on bonus. Plus, up to $6,000/year in educational and financial growth through our DSP certification program.”

The ad doesn’t explain what a “DSP” does — at least not beyond the phrase “empowering people with differing abilities to live, work and thrive” — but it’s plenty revealing in another way.

The ad’s existence shows where some disability service providers have found themselves nearly a year into the pandemic. They’re tossing out lures, hoping to draw in job candidates at a time when it would seem as if the unemployment rate would make a steady paycheck incentive enough.

James Phillips, senior director of human resources for the Arc NCR, says that in the past six months, he has shifted most of his resources toward recruitment.

“That’s the number one priority that’s been keeping me up at night,” he says. “When you watch the news, all you hear about is the unemployment crisis. But there are jobs available. I have them.”

So, too, do other disability service providers.

In the past week, I have spoken to agencies that serve people with disabilities and organizations that represent them, and they describe a hiring crisis that has been exacerbated by the pandemic and involves a low-wage job that is critical to helping people with disabilities maintain their independence.

They also point to a complex mix of factors as causing that crisis. One of them: Many people have no idea the job exists.

If you say you’re a nurse or a home health aide, people understand what you do with your days. They can picture your scrubs or your badge. But tell them you’re a DSP — direct support professional — and their heads might tilt in a way that asks, “A what?”

DSPs work with people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. That’s the simplest way to describe them. What their days actually entail differs depending on the level of help a person needs. Some jobs might require cleaning, bathing and doling out medication. Other jobs might involve planning excursions, demonstrating budgeting and helping fill out résumés.

“Someone is going to be looking to you, in some cases for everything and anything, to help them live independently,” Phillips says. “When I have somebody come on staff, I tell them, ‘Every day you get to come to work and you get to help that person live the life they want.’ ”

Hillary Scroggins recalls the first two people she worked with when she was hired as a DSP by the Arc NCR. Her time with each looked very different. One person needed her help to eat. The other needed assistance with budgeting and going to the grocery store.

She later helped another person reach his goal of joining a gym and feeling comfortable using the machines. She keeps a note from his family in her desk. One line reads: “We truly appreciate you.”

“A lot of the time, what you’re doing for people is their first experience,” Scroggins says. When she started in the field, she didn’t know what a DSP did. Now, she explains the importance of the job to people in this way: “If this was your mom or your brother or your sister, what kind of care, what kind of life, would you want that person to have?”

Most people will never need a DSP or find themselves employed as one, but what happens in that workforce is a public health issue, because it affects the most vulnerable among us. When a staff is stretched thin, someone still has to fill a shift, even if that means that a person takes on more hours than is ideal.

Disability service providers describe seeing many DSPs quit early on in the pandemic because of the demands and risks of the job. Many people who gravitate toward the work are immigrants who live in multigenerational homes, and they feared taking the virus home to vulnerable family members. At the same time, providers also saw extraordinary sacrifices made by the staff members who remained. In April, I told you about one worker who chose to isolate with a man with intellectual and developmental disabilities who had tested positive for the coronavirus. Proper protective equipment was scarce, so he was reusing the same sets of masks and gowns, spraying them daily with Lysol.

Some workers who left have since returned, providers say, but not at a pace that alleviates worries.

“Ordinarily, when unemployment is high, we see a slight increase in the number of people drawn to the direct support workforce,” says Barbara Merrill, the chief executive of ANCOR, a national trade association that represents more than 1,600 private community providers of services to people with disabilities. “However, we haven’t necessarily seen that trend during this period of economic downturn because of the many unique challenges of the pandemic. DSPs are getting sick themselves, they’re having to take care of loved ones who are sick, they’re being forced to stay home to facilitate at-home learning for their children whose schools are shuttered and more.”

She describes those challenges as exacerbating what was already a crisis being felt in every state in the nation. The job has long seen a high turnover rate, which she and others attribute mostly to the low pay.

“Although providers are desperate to offer higher wages, inadequate Medicaid reimbursement rates tie their hands,” Merrill says.

Ian Paregol, executive director of the DC Coalition of Disability Service Providers, says he and others have long warned officials that this crisis was coming. As early as 2017, he says, the effort to get the District to provide funding that would allow for increased wages began. In February 2020, the D.C. Council unanimously passed the DSP Payment Rate Act, but it was not signed by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).

During at least two council hearings late last year, Paregol succinctly summed up where that has now left providers. His written testimony reads: “The industry now is saddled with a minimum wage job where a prospective DSP applicant is more likely to contract COVID-19 than in virtually any other industry coupled with a continually ticking clock of attrition.”

As of Friday, 649 people who provide these types of services in the city have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 10 have died.

Danielle Darby, the chief operating officer for RCM of Washington, one of the largest disability service providers in the District, says the agency is not offering signing bonuses. But in September, it instituted a new pay scale to draw applicants and keep staff members from leaving. The starting pay is now $15.50 an hour, with the potential to earn up to $18 an hour.

Darby estimates that she has between 15 and 20 jobs available.

Phillips says he has about 35 openings, ones he hopes to fill soon.

The ad is just one recruiting approach. He is also considering holding a large hiring event when the weather warms up, and he plans to offer an apprenticeship that was created in collaboration with other agencies. Candidates don’t need to come with 20 or 30 years of experience. He says he is open to hiring anyone who comes with a passion for the mission.

“Now, mind you,” he says, “I’d take the person with 20 and 30 years of experience, too.”

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