$15 per-hour wage sought for disability support professionals

Across Tennessee about 7,000 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and their families, rely on the network of services delivered by approximately 20,000 direct support professionals (DSPs) – whose average pay is around $10 an hour.

This low pay often leads to high levels of staff turnover and threatens the crucial continuity of these services.

Growing numbers of DSPs opt to earn more money outside the disability services field, attracted to better pay in other industries.

The impact of this trend for people with disabilities is a lack of continuity in their care and the risk of long-term disruption in the support they are provided.

Tennessee Community Organizations, the Nashville-based statewide association of 60 disability-services providers of which I am currently serving as president, is working to get a $15 an hour provider wage. Our goal is to preserve the stability of care and achieve competitive compensation for the high level of specialization and responsibility required by these support professionals.

DSPs have a crucial role in the lives of people whose disabilities, in some cases, require moderate support, and in other cases require 24/7 total care. DSPs touch all activities of daily living such as eating, bathing, dressing, toileting, transferring, and the use of mobility equipment.

People with disabilities deserve staff who are trained to support their independence, their participation in meaningful community activities, including volunteer activities, and employment.

Retaining qualified DSPs is a nationwide problem. Across the country, crisis websites dedicated to finding solutions and creating awareness include examples of the impact of the problem, like:

• Clients are left wondering why their staff have left, if the next staff can adequately support them and if they will relate to the new staff.

• Families are left wondering how long the next staff will stay, if the new staff will care for their family member as diligently and with a sense of uncertainty about the stability of the future.

The crisis is of special concern in Tennessee. In an October 2019 Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities performance report, the Tennessee comptroller acknowledged that the state’s disability services providers face a crisis-level shortage of direct-care workers and stated more money is needed to alleviate workforce concerns.

For the past several years, TNCO has sought state funding to achieve a more-competitive wage for direct support professionals.

Last year, Tennessee legislators supported an average wage of $10 per hour for DSPs.

TNCO’s research showed that an average $10-an-hour wage reduced turnover by 10 percent across a statewide sample of 40 provider agencies.

However, as the $10- per-hour milestone was reached, the competition for workers from other industries outpaced what disability services providers could pay. TNCO is working this legislative session to increase support professional salaries to $15 per hour. We know that the economic stability of a better wage would have an enormous ripple effect on DSPs, individuals receiving support, their families, and the communities in which they live.

The people receiving support would benefit from the continuity of quality care, and their families would have peace of mind knowing there would be stability in their loved ones’ daily lives. Workers would have the comfort of earning a salary that would allow them to better support themselves and their families, and to continue to make a difference in thousands of Tennesseans’ lives.

Donald Redden is the executive director of Developmental Services of Dickson County in Dickson, and is the 2019-2020 president of Tennessee Community Organizations (TNCO).