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DSPs working with adults with IDD earn 1/3 less than those working with children

Schools recognized the need and then took the initiative to increase wages but agencies serving adults have their hands tied by state regulators. Let's change this!


As described in an earlier post, prices for everything have continued to rise across the region, squeezing hard-working families everywhere. The Consumer Price Index in the Mid-Atlantic region increased by over 17% since COVID, a rate not seen in more than 40 years. Yet Direct Support Professionals or DSPs - the backbone of the workforce helping adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities or IDD are barely earning more than they were in 12 years ago. So to understand this gap, we compared their wages to that of another group - support staff working in public school special education classrooms. We discovered the DSPs working with adults earn 1/3 less than those working with children for doing essentially the same work, but with even less support.

If you walk into any special education classroom serving older transition-aged youth (e.g., 18-21 year olds) with IDD, chances are that most of the direct support staff in the classroom will have a background and education equivalent to DSPs. Like DSPs, they work with 1 to 3 students at a time, preparing them for life after school and in the community. In other words, DSPs and support staff in special education classrooms are not really different with respect to their background and their role.


But they earn VERY different salaries. As noted in our earlier post, DSPs might now earn about $16/hour in the kinds of facility-based programs that most resemble special education settings. Contrast this with the hourly rate for a special education support staff within the public school system here in Chester County. A comparable special education classroom support position at the Chester County Intermediate Unit or CCIU can pay $24-$30/hour. And the CCIU position includes personal days, health benefits, and up to a $1500 signing bonus! We expect that similar gaps can be found across Pennsylvania.


Significant gaps remain even when administrative overhead is reduced to a minimum through self-directed waivers. While a family using a such waiver might pay up to $25.80/hour, this does not include any of the benefits offered by a special education setting like the CCIU. And the work of DSPs is arguably much more challenging: DSPs receive much less training (and are not paid for the training they receive, and often work in isolation without the support of teachers or other specialists.


So compared to special educators, DSP's are paid significantly less and receive fewer benefits for working under more challenging circumstances, even though they are providing virtually the same kind of support to the same kind of individuals. Is it any surprise that families and other providers are finding it impossible recruit and retain DSPs?


The difference here is that schools have the flexibility to adjust pay based on changing conditions. For example, we understand that classroom support staff at the CCIU struggling to cope with rising costs this past fall approached the administration with their concerns. The result was a substantial pay increase. Notably, this was still not enough to recruit the staff needed, and so the CCIU has tried to close the gaps in schools using a contracted service that pays staff $34/hour.


Most employers respond compassionately to employees struggling with inflation. But families and agencies employing DSPs have their hands tied by state regulators that suppress the kinds of reasonable wage increases recommended by the federal government. House Bill 661 and its companion bill in the Senate (SB 684) would simply require that rates paid to DSPs be adjusted on July 1st every year to keep up with inflation, in a manner consistent with federal guidelines. In 2023, this would likely result in a 4 to 5% increase. Though not enough to close to wage gap, it would keep it from worsening. Urge legislators on the Human Services Committees in the House and in the Senate to move these bills out of committee to the floor for a full vote. We think that the full House and Senate WILL act compassionately, and pass these if given the chance. It is the right thing to do for adults with IDD and the dedicated staff who support them. And it is the fair thing to do.

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