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Pandemic staffing crisis leaves adult care facilities scrambling for support

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When there's a huge line at your local coffee shop because maybe they're short-staffed, it can be annoying. Well, our next guest argues that for his industry, staff shortages are more than an annoyance. They can be life-threatening. Christopher White is CEO of Road to Responsibility. That is a Massachusetts company that provides care and services for adults with disabilities. They are struggling to find workers because they can't match the starting wage being offered by other businesses - businesses like Target, say, or Bank of America.

Christopher White, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CHRISTOPHER WHITE: Thanks for having me, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Just in a sentence or two, would you tell me a little bit more about the people you are serving? Who comes to a company like Road to Responsibility?

WHITE: So we serve adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including autism and acquired brain injuries. They are as young as 22, and our oldest person that we support is, I believe, 97.

KELLY: Wow. OK. So quite a range. And when you say you're short-staffed, how short-staffed? What's the gap?

WHITE: We have 260 vacant positions right now...

KELLY: Wow.

WHITE: ...Which represents about 27% of our total workforce.

KELLY: What is your understanding of why? Why can't you hire these people?

WHITE: It's - to keep it really simple, there's three big factors. There's demographics that - COVID drove a lot of boomers to retire a lot sooner than was predicted. A vast immigrant population has for many years been a Band-Aid for human service staffing woes. That's really no longer available. And the big one now is just the pay rates. The employment market has changed radically in the - I guess we're in a sort of post-COVID world right now.

KELLY: Yeah, the transitioning out of COVID world.

WHITE: Yeah.

KELLY: Yeah. How big is the gap? I said you can't match wages being offered elsewhere.

WHITE: The state contracts we have will support entry level wages of between $15 an hour and $16.79 an hour for our direct care staff. We increased that rate using one-time dollars this year to $17 an hour. And thankfully, that, plus generous recruitment and retention bonuses, stopped the hemorrhaging of staff leaving the workforce, but it hasn't really allowed us to gain any ground, whereas people can go down the street and work for Dunkin' Donuts for $18 an hour. We can't compete with it.

KELLY: What does it mean to be trying to run a company and have 27% fewer staff than you need to be fully staffed? What are the consequences of that? Like, what isn't getting done?

WHITE: Well, we're getting things done, but quality isn't what it was, and people are exhausted. You know, I've got staff who are routinely working a hundred hours a week.

KELLY: A hundred hours a week?

WHITE: Yep.

KELLY: Routinely?

WHITE: Routinely. You know, so when people are working that much and are tired, mistakes get made. And again, we're not alone. This is happening everywhere.

KELLY: Sounds like you're dealing with a really vulnerable population, and what you're saying is there are delays in their care and their treatments that they need.

WHITE: Yeah. And for many people, it means they're not getting services at all. People that were participating in our day services - either employment or a therapeutic day service for people who are more medically compromised and older - we've only been able to get about 60% of the people we were serving pre-COVID back into service. And the folks that we have been able to get back into service, we've seen really major declines in their skills and abilities because they haven't been getting the support they need.

KELLY: Christopher White, thank you.

WHITE: Thank you.

KELLY: He is CEO of Road to Responsibility in Massachusetts. And we called the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services to allow them to respond. We have not heard back. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Megan Lim