Direct Support Professionals enable people with intellectual/developmental disabilities to thrive in communities; they deserve a living wage

By Daniel Keating, Patch Poster 

More than 30,000 New Jersey residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) rely on direct support professionals (DSPs) to provide the needed assistance to thrive in communities across the Garden State. DSPs are highly-trained professionals who perform critical, complex work, but their pay is abysmally low and has remained virtually flat for over a decade. Tragically, these low wages are at the core of the DSP workforce shortage that is putting the state’s community-based care system for individuals with I/DD at risk.

DSPs work in group residential settings, apartments, and community-based homes. They teach in adult learning centers and support people with I/DD who have satisfying jobs in a variety of settings. Many provide round-the-clock care. They develop and implement treatment plans. Administer medications. Build life skills. Help people reach life goals. They are trusted friends and mentors. DSPs are the cornerstone of the community-based services system that enables people with I/DD to live as independently as possible.

The problem is the average starting salary for DSPs in New Jersey is just $10.50 an hour. At that rate, caring people who want to dedicate their lives to serving others simply cannot afford to consider direct service work as a viable employment option. Low wages are forcing many DSPs to work multiple jobs or receive public assistance just to make ends meet. And equally troubling, the lack of compensation is contributing to an approximately 44% turnover that is interfering with the continuity of care that individuals with I/DD need to feel safe and secure.

The election of a new Governor and full Legislature provides an opportunity for the state to stabilize the disability service system by investing in a living wage for DSPs. More than 1,000 individuals with I/DD, their families, community provider agencies and DSPs have joined the “Coalition for a DSP Living Wage” to advocate for a fair, living wage for these professionals who play a critical role in enabling people with I/DD to attain full integration in their communities.

Last year, policymakers approved the first minimum wage increase for DSPs in 11 years. While an important first step, lawmakers need appropriate funding to raise wages by $1.25 for the next four years to bring the starting salary to a competitive $16.75 living wage by 2022. A DSP living wage will ensure the qualified, experienced and stable workforce required to safeguard the health, safety, and well-being of people with I/DD in New Jersey. The Coalition for a DSP Living Wage looks forward to working with the new Governor and members of the Legislature to make it happen.

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