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Hiring crisis: While economy grows, wages for social service professionals aren’t keeping up

Illustration by Theresa Ganzer
As Minnesotans, we need to do a “gut check” and ask ourselves about our commitment to providing a quality of life to people with disabilities.

As the economy picks up steam and the private sector increases hiring and wages to attract top talent, there’s another situation that’s impacting Minnesotans with disabilities, and, more specifically, the programs that serve them. They are in a hiring and retention crisis.

Michael Kraines

There are factors that drive this need and this vital service sector of our state.

People with disabilities are much more visible now than in the past. They work in their communities, participate in activities and take part in day-to-day activities like employment, shopping, recreational events and so on. Self-advocates and their family members have been key motivators behind this, along with the more than 100 nonprofit day programs that help individuals with disabilities live their lives fully with the most meaning.

State, feds set rates for services

The programs are supported primarily by the state and the federal government, which determine rates for services. Unfortunately, those rates are rather slow to catch up with our changing economy. This has left an estimated 9,000 direct-support professional (DSP) positions unfilled, and prompted employee turnover rates that negatively impact the people we serve. Human services center on relationships, and, when people can’t stay with an organization, instability and uncertainty often result.

This has been the situation for a few years now, and we just received some bad news that will make it even worse. A 7 percent cut to the rates paid to disability nonprofits is set to take effect for some programs this summer, after being announced recently by the Minnesota Department of Human Services. This is prompting a flurry of activity at the State Capitol to correct something that never should have been.

As Minnesotans, we need to do a “gut check” and ask ourselves about our commitment to providing a quality of life to people with disabilities. Many of these folks need assistance to effectively stand up for themselves. They often depend on others, who serve as their employment coaches, advocates and caregivers.

Committed employees struggle with subpar pay

The good news, despite the wage struggles and turnover, is that a number of people in our field are committed for the long haul. They have found a fulfillment that transcends wages and benefits, one centered on other people and their needs.

It’s a noble profession, but it need not be one that struggles to survive on subpar wages for those that choose to do this important work. The future depends on the effectiveness of those who speak up, but it also relies on a general understanding by the public that disability services are valued, needed and worth supporting.

Michael Kraines is the executive director of CHOICE, Inc., Eden Prairie. CHOICE is dedicated to creating partnerships and programs that enrich the lives of people with intellectual disabilities.


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