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Advocates push for more state funds for disability services and higher wages for workers

The Pennsylvania State House chamber.
Matt Rourke

Advocates for people with disabilities are pushing for additional millionsin the Commonwealth’s budget in the next fiscal year to raise wages and shore up staffing for home and community-based services.

Such services were already short-staffed prior to the pandemic, and providers and advocates say the problem has surpassed crisis-level now as wages in other sectors rise. Because home and community-based services rely on government reimbursements through Medicaid, a program jointly funded by states and the federal government, staff often earn low wages.

The average hourly wage for direct support professionals is $14.98, according to a survey last year by the Rehabilitation and Community Providers Association, which represents human service provider organizations. That puts it below the wages of many retail and service-sector jobs. Direct support professionals help care for people with disabilities by assisting with daily needs like eating and bathing, administering medication, and numerous other tasks.

The sector’s high turnover and vacancy rates make it challenging for families who rely on such services to care for disabled loved ones.

Mt. Lebanon mother of three Lisa Silverman has been unable to hire direct support professionals to help her care for her son, Ryan, 22, who has Down Syndrome.

“For the last year, we have not been able to locate someone to fill those hours,” she said.

There just aren't people to do the direct support jobs. And I think, in my opinion, a large part of it is that the wage is low. And what we've all seen as we drive around these days post-COVID, there are signing bonuses, there are higher wages in jobs that are probably a lot less taxing than being a direct support professional.”

The field was already dealing with a workforce crisis, emphasized Richard Edley, president and CEO of the providers association.

“COVID has just drastically and quickly compounded the situation,” he said.

State officials last year released more than a billion dollars in one-time federal American Rescue Plan funds to help agencies that serve seniors and people with disabilities pay for assistance such as sign-on and retention bonuses for direct care workers, money for personal protective equipment and testing supplies, and funds for student loan forgiveness programs to recruit more workers.

“We have an unprecedented opportunity with the federal ARPA funding to support those who have been supporting individuals and families in our communities throughout the pandemic,” a state Department of Human Services spokesman said. “With this funding, we are immediately investing in the recruitment and retention of Pennsylvania’s caring workforce, which is crucial to providing home and community-based services (HCBS). While this ARPA funding is helpful, we know it is not permanent. States need long-term investments to help reinforce HCBS systems to advance quality in care delivery, staff retention, and help people served by these systems live with the dignity and support they deserve.”

President Biden’s Build Back Better plan had proposed billions more for home and community based services and the caregiving workforce, but that legislation is languishing in congress.

Nancy Murray, president of the Arc of Greater Pittsburgh and senior vice president at Achieva, said providers are pushing for an additional $65 million in state funds above the governor’s budget proposal.

The state’ budget is due June 30 for the new fiscal year that begins July 1; negotiations between Democratic Governor Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled state House and Senate are expected to pick up after the May 17 primary.

Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at or 412-697-2953.