Op-Ed: Underpaid, Essential Workers Deserve More than a Temporary Wage Hike

Direct support professionals provide life-sustaining assistance to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities living in group homes and supervised apartments
Valerie Sellers

Gov. Phil Murphy recently announced a temporary wage increase of $3 per hour for direct support professionals (DSPs) who are working on the front lines of the pandemic, providing life-sustaining supports to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities living in group homes and supervised apartments. We are grateful to Gov. Murphy, his administration and the leaders in the New Jersey Legislature for recognizing their critical role amid this crisis with this well-deserved and much-needed compensation. However, this is just a short-term fix. New Jersey needs a more permanent funding solution to bring DSP wages in line with the responsibilities and skill required for the job they perform every single day, not just during the pandemic.

COVID-19 has magnified the need for DSPs more than ever and how this underpaid, essential group of workers deserve the appropriate protection and compensation to perform their high-risk, demanding work. Day in and day out, DSPs carry out complex duties, administer medications, follow behavioral plans, tend to personal care, and most importantly, serve as trusted companions to the people they serve.

During this crisis, many are going above and beyond their usual roles and responsibilities, putting their own health and lives on the line to care for others who are particularly vulnerable to the disease. They are diligently doing the infection control work, maintaining separation where needed, and keeping homes clean and people healthy. Many are working extra hours to cover shifts lost to sick or unavailable co-workers and helping people with disabilities cope with feeling the loss of beloved family members or friends who can no longer come to visit. In far too many instances, DSPs are performing this essential work without the appropriate personal protective equipment needed to keep everyone safe. The state must continue to address this shortfall and ensure DSPs are part of the supply chain going forward.

As the state lawmakers begin to grapple with the fiscal year 2021 budget and revenue shortfall, it is imperative that DSPs and the people they support do not become casualties. The final budget must include Gov. Murphy’s proposed $21 million of new state funding (plus $21 million federal Medicaid match) to raise DSP wages. The Coalition for a DSP Living Wage has long been saying that the average starting wage of just $11.50 per hour for DSPs in New Jersey is woefully inadequate. The 44% turnover and nearly 30% vacancy rates in the field prove it. However, it is this crisis that has really brought the wage disparity to the forefront.

The time is long overdue for the state to make DSP wages competitive and reflect the vital role these dedicated professionals have in the Garden State. Investment in FY2021 and beyond is needed to make it happen for these everyday heroes.