New Jersey lawmakers may soon begin debate on raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour. As this process unfolds, it is critical lawmakers recognize that DSPs are not minimum wage workers. They are skilled professionals who provide the essential hands-on supports that enable more than 30,000 New Jersey residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) to live as integrated members of communities across the Garden State. They do more and deserve to earn more than minimum wage.
DSPs must complete extensive training and continuing education to attain the knowledge needed to support the diverse physical and intellectual needs of individuals with I/DD. They ensure individuals live active and engaged lives and are included in their communities at every level. To achieve community inclusion, DSP’s oversee and administer essential behavioral and medical care, comply with complex regulations and reporting requirements, and serve as advocates, companions and supportive caregivers and mentors.
The disparity between the specialized skill sets required to be a DSP and low compensation is already fueling a critical shortage of qualified direct care workers in New Jersey. The average starting wage of a DSP is only $11 per hour ($2.40 above minimum wage) forcing most DSPs to work multiple jobs and/or rely on public assistance just to make ends meet. The lack of compensation is contributing to 44 percent turnover and 20 percent vacancy rates in the field — costing taxpayers thousands in overtime and lost training. Worse, the revolving door of DSPs, if not addressed, will jeopardize the health and safety of individuals with I/DD. It’s already taking a financial toll on family members who may be forced to miss work to care for their loved one, let alone the emotional stress of dealing with ever-changing staff.
If the state moves to a $15 minimum wage, placing DSPs at a comparable pay level with entry-level jobs such as fast food workers, cashiers, and retail sales clerks whose positions require significantly lower levels of skill and responsibility, the recruitment and retention issues in the field will worsen. Workers will likely move to less demanding jobs further threatening the ability of individuals with I/DD to live in community settings
The Coalition for a DSP Living Wage — comprised of over 1,000 individuals with I/DD, their family members, DSPs and organizations that serve and advocate for people with I/DD—is grateful to the Governor and Legislature for investing in a small wage increase for DSPs in the state budget adopted in June. However, this was just a first step. Lawmakers must remain committed to bringing DSP wages in line with the responsibility and skill required for the job.
Furthermore, should lawmakers move forward with any increase to New Jersey’s minimum wage, a corresponding state-funded increase is needed to ensure the starting DSP rate is at least 25 percent higher and accommodates pay rate increases for more experienced DSPs who work with adults with I/DD. DSPs are not minimum wage workers, and their pay should reflect the professional training, knowledge, passion and dedication necessary to support adults with I/DD.
Valerie Sellers is Chairperson of the Coalition for a DSP Living Wage and CEO of the New Jersey Association of Community Providers.