Services provided to individuals with Developmental Disabilities in Ohio are largely provided by an undersupported and underpaid group of professionals.  Many of the strategic objectives for services in Ohio, such as reducing waiting lists, the privatization of day services, and the downsizing of large facilities are all reliant on provider agencies having access to more quality direct support professionals (DSPs).  How do agencies identify, hire, and train new DSP’s to become team members?  Through Awareness, Sustainability, and Celebration.

Awareness

How we build awareness of these meaningful and necessary job opportunities will have a direct impact on increasing the number of available DSP’s. The Ohio Provider Resource Association has created DSPOhio , a statewide recruitment initiative to brand the DSP role, and inform the public about this potential career route. OPRA aims to increase awareness of the role of a DSP and the rewarding nature of the work, while ultimately connecting potential employees with provider agencies. The DSPOhio website will feature information about the role of a DSP, videos, and information on providers.

Many providers advertise the services that are provided. How do we also shine a light on the important work that our DSPs do each day? When we discuss our work with those outside of the field, what stories do we choose to tell? While recounting times when staff have underperformed may be shocking and interesting to your friend at a party, telling a praiseworthy and uplifting story does far more to raise the level for all of us.

What do the very walls of our agencies communicate about our mission, our values, and our DSPs? Images of staff providing quality care are simple and inexpensive to display, yet they create lasting mental images for new staff, family members, and visitors to our buildings. Any opportunity to provide a feeling of ownership and connectedness can raise awareness of our DSP’s and the importance of their roles for the individuals that we serve.

Sustainability

The average starting wage for a DSP in Ohio is $9.50 per hour. Allowing for 2 weeks off per year, and working 40 hours the remaining 50 weeks, yields an annual salary of $19,000. Per Healthcare.gov, that is $1,420 lower than the Federal Poverty Level for a family of 3 ($20,420). A provider rate increase in 2016 had some impact, but it is difficult to ensure that all providers passed the funds along to the DSP’s.  In order to turn $10 into a living wage, many DSP’s are deciding to work for two agencies, working over 80 hours per week.

This has a negative impact on their own families and private life. Equally important to note is the negative impact that this strategy has on the quality of services being offered. No parent would sign their loved one up to receive the second 8 hours of a double shift. With no authority over what staff do in the hours where they are not working for a provider agency, the agency is left to hope that they are paying for the first and best 8 hours of the DSP’s work day.  This is not an issue unique to Ohio. Many states are wrestling with the same issue.  While there may be no quick fix, the conversation needs to continue, lest excellent DSPs continue to leave our industry because it is not a long term answer for how they will support themselves and their families.

Job conditions also effect the sustainability of the DSP role. At $9.50 per hour, transportation and gasoline are challenging to a budget. Do we expect our DSPs to drive 15 miles of unpaid time to get to work? Once they arrive, we expect (demand) community inclusivity, which means more miles, more gas, and more money. How do we support them in doing so? Considering distance from a DSPs home to their place of work, and reimbursing for activity fees, mileage, and even gas can go a long way towards making each dollar that they earn stretch just a bit further. Assistance with affording community outings will also provide DSPs with more incentive to offer the types of meaningful community experiences that are so richly valued by our individuals.

Celebration

People want to be appreciated and heard. How well are we doing this for our own staff? Do we listen to their schedule availability and try for flexibility, or do we offer them only what is best for the agency? Do we lean too heavily on our most responsible staff, causing problems outside of work or burnout? In what ways do we build them up, and say thank you for their care of our individuals?

September of each year holds a National Direct Support Professional Recognition Week. The National Association of Direct Support Professionals is holding a conference on 9/7/18 and 9/8/18 in St. Louis, Missouri which will provide attendees “an opportunity to learn about best practices, share stories, network, and gain insight on building direct support excellence.”

For those providers who would struggle with the costs of sending some staff to St. Louis, the Ohio Alliance of Direct Support Professionals hosts a DSP recognition event in Columbus during that same week each year. This year’s event will be on September 11. They are also hosting a DSP summit on May 15th. This event “is another step toward the evolution of Direct Support into a profession.” While there are certainly costs associated with sending staff to a conference, there is no reason that employee recognition should be an afterthought when planning an annual budget.  The simple act of writing nomination letters for staff and submitting them can be very meaningful. Make a copy of the nomination, frame it, and present it to the staff. A small act of appreciation can result in improved services across the agency.

National and local conferences are excellent ways to reward the highest performing staff. However, is your agency’s culture one of celebration? What is done during the second week in September to remind staff that they are the foundation of the agency?

How about the rest of the year? Providers need to evolve in how they reward and celebrate their staff. Can anyone on the executive team bake? Deliver homemade cookies to DSP’s while they are working. One provider agency holds an annual car wash, where the management team washes the cars of the DSPs. Other providers offer branded clothing as rewards for achieving milestones. A happy DSP is a walking advertisement for your agency’s services and potential employment options.  Take a critical look at the way that your DSPs are celebrated, and give them a reason to do their best work each day.

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