Murphy’s rule could lead to group home shortages

Warning of severe staffing shortages, advocates for New Jerseyans with disabilities are urging Gov. Phil Murphy to revoke the vaccination mandate he issued last week for community-vital group home workers.

Murphy on January 19 signed a executive order requiring healthcare workers to be fully vaccinated and fortified against COVID-19 or face dismissal. The executive order eliminates a testing alternative that home providers say has helped them retain staff at a time when the latest coronavirus surge has thinned ranks.

Operators who run group homes, assisted living facilities and other programs that serve tens of thousands of people with developmental disabilities said they understand the importance of vaccination. But the new mandate is very scary.

“There are no staff. Day programs are closed. People need to stay home,” said Valerie Sellers, CEO of the New Jersey Association of Community Providers, one of three trade groups that represent more than 150 agencies in the state. “Families are angry with agencies because they have to work. But if they don’t have staff, they can’t open programs.”

Many providers have been forced to consolidate group homes, she said in an interview, adding, “It’s insane.”

The rise in COVID infections combined with stiff competition from labor from other industries has proven too much for many programs, said Celeste Smith, associate executive director of LADACIN Network, an agency that works in Ocean and Monmouth counties.

Homes that would have had 12 to 15 helpers in a week try to make do with five or six, Smith said last week. She wondered if they “might as well wrap it up” after hearing about the executive order.

Reluctance to get vaccinated among staff at the LADACIN group home was already high, she added. The majority “are not energized, and they don’t intend to be,” Smith said.

Who is covered by the mandate

Disability advocates and group home providers say Governor Murphy's mandate that healthcare workers get vaccinated could have dire effects on programs that are already struggling to retain staff.

Murphy’s executive order covers hospitals and other healthcare workers, including those who work in congregate care facilities such as prisons and group homes. Exemptions can be made for those with medical conditions or “deeply held” religious beliefs.

With the highly contagious omicron variant and evidence that vaccine immunity wanes after five months, “COVID-19 booster doses are critical,” Murphy’s deputy press secretary Alexandra Altman said in an email today. last week.

“Given the extremely vulnerable populations residing in healthcare and congregational settings, it is essential that staff receive booster doses in order to best protect themselves and those for whom they are responsible on a day-to-day basis,” she said.

Healthcare workers have until Jan. 27 to receive their first dose of the vaccine or until Feb. 28 to get a booster under the prescription. Those working in high-risk congregate living sites have until February 16 to receive their first dose and March 30 for a booster.

The mandate is to “virtually guarantee that residents will face a shortage of caregivers” and “the governor needs to show us what his plan is if these places start to fail,” said Sen. Anthony Bucco, a Republican from Morris County. , in an interview. .

“We know for a fact that group homes are already struggling to find qualified staff to care for these residents,” added Bucco, who said he heard from business groups, families and facilities upset about the order. “Removing this testing requirement makes the situation worse than better. It is well known that even vaccinated and boosted people have contracted the variant. For me, testing is probably a better way to make sure people aren’t contagious when they go to these facilities.

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The isolation and closure of work, educational and therapeutic programs have dealt greater blows to the disability community than most since the pandemic erupted in March 2020, say advocates and leaders of the industry. This weighed down an already creaky support system.

Labor shortages can be found in many industries, but even before COVID the industry was stretched. Group and home care aides – known in the industry as Direct Support Professionals or DSPs – provide care that covers the daily needs of clients with disabilities, bathing, dressing and eating transport and organization of activities.

“For many people with disabilities, direct support professionals play an indispensable role in their lives – a very personal, very physical, and usually very demanding role,” said New Jersey State-appointed Disability Ombudsman Paul Aronsohn, in a 2019 report to Murphy. .

The average starting salary for direct support professionals in New Jersey was about $12 per hour, or $24,960 per year, according to the report. The state, which regulates group homes, has approved three rate increases for DSPs since Aronsohn’s report, and agencies currently pay a minimum of $15 to $16.50 an hour, Sellers said. .

In a statement Friday, the state Department of Human Services, which oversees congregate care facilities, said quality of care was a “top priority” and highlighted wage increases as well as a hiring process. simplified adopted at the height of the pandemic. That process was reinstated on Jan. 20, they said.

“Human Services is committed to taking all possible steps to support and maintain the essential workforce that cares for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” said spokesperson Tom Hester, who added that personnel issues are not unique to New Jersey or the industry.

High turnover, high burnout

State Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, said the vaccine mandate could push group homes out of business.

Despite reform efforts, high turnover, high burnout and high vacancy rates remain the norm for positions.

Average DSP salaries fall below federal poverty levels and most staff work two or three jobs, according to a 2017 report to the U.S. president on the “direct support workforce crisis in the US.” ‘America”.

The Vendors Trade Group surveyed vendors before the pandemic and found a turnover rate of 44% among home helpers. Last summer, that had climbed “at least into the 50th percentile,” she said. Vacancy rates for the position vary across the state from 25% to 70% depending on the agency, says the sellers.

America’s Network for Community Options and Resources, a national nonprofit trade association surveyed providers and reported in August that 84% of them said services such as therapy and life skills socialization had been delayed due to a lack of staff ; 81% said they struggled to meet quality standards due to labor shortages and 77% had turned down new referrals for people with developmental disabilities.

People are living in homes that don’t follow staffing policies, forcing agencies across the state and nation to send residents with disabilities to caregivers who aren’t equipped to care for them ., according to state and country advocates.

“We also can’t do transportation now because we don’t have the staff to do it,” said Smith, of the LADACIN network, adding that she had never seen such a severe staffing crisis in 45 years with his company.

DSPs perform demanding work, often for long hours, said Thomas Baffuto, executive director of The Arc of New Jersey, a northern Brunswick-based organization that has 20 chapters across the state. Approximately 15,000 people live in Arc homes and participate in its programs. Other jobs, just as low paid, are often more attractive.

“There’s a big difference between giving someone a bag of fries and giving someone a diaper,” Smith said.

The sellers wrote to Murphy asking him to cancel the order. Instead, home providers need more time to figure out how to meet the new challenge., she said.

“Don’t exacerbate what is already a crisis situation,” she said. “Give us time to see if this can be resolved over the next few months, but don’t put us in a position where we’re going to see an exodus of DSPs.”

Gene Myers is a reporter for For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

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Twitter: @myersgene

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