Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Families seeking therapy and other services for relatives with developmental disabilities are running into a familiar problem in New Mexico – a shortage of people available to do the work.
To help address the challenge, two state legislators are planning to ask their colleagues in the 2023 session to pass a bill requiring the collection and reporting of employment and wage data in the field – a small first step, they say, to guide future decision-making on how to bolster the workforce.
In interviews, Rep. Elizabeth Thomson and Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, both Albuquerque Democrats, said the goal is to give the Legislature meaningful information on staffing levels and starting wages within the agencies serving individuals with disabilities.
A firm plan to address the workforce shortage would follow after that – strategies designed to get higher compensation to frontline workers or other efforts to build a robust group of caregivers and other providers.
Thomson, whose 31-year-old son with severe autism lives at a group home and requires 24/7 care, said she’s seen first hand the trouble retaining workers in the field.
“There are folks who have the heart for it and want to do it but can’t afford it,” she said.
Ortiz y Pino said the state has tapped into federal funds to help move individuals off a massive waiting list for services under the developmental disabilities program. But even with funding available, he said, families are having trouble finding services for their loved ones.
Frontline staffers for provider agencies can help a person with developmental disabilities prepare food, take medicine, go the bathroom, visit the doctor and search for a job. They also provide moral support.
“It’s tough work,” Ortiz y Pino said. “This is not as easy as flipping burgers.”
The staff, consequently, ought to be paid fairly for the skills they bring to the job, he said.
The legislation under consideration would establish a Wage Transparency Act and require providers to report staffing and wage data to the state.
There would also be a cost study every two years to help determine the appropriate state reimbursement rate for agencies providing services to individuals with disabilities.
The study would have to assume that the professionals providing direct support to individuals with developmental disabilities are paid 150% of the state minimum wage.
Pamela Stafford, organizing director for New Mexico Caregivers in Action, a nonprofit group, said an examination of staffing levels is vital, especially given the isolation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The health restrictions meant individuals in group homes sometimes couldn’t leave the house or receive family visits, she said, increasing the importance of appropriate staffing.
A labor shortage “puts people at risk,” Stafford said.
The proposed legislation “will not solve any problems short-term,” she said, but it could provide information to guide future strategies for building out the workforce.
The 60-day legislative session is set to begin Jan. 17. An oil boom is generating plenty of state revenue, but lawmakers have been grappling with how to recruit and retain workers across a number of professions – in public safety, health care and education.