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Like many industries right now, the health care and support sector that provides services to people with disabilities is facing a workforce crisis unlike any we have ever seen. For years, we've been sounding the alarm about the need to invest in the skilled workers who support people with disabilities throughout the state.

Direct support professionals, or DSPs, are workers whom people with disabilities cannot live without. They handle everything from administering medication to cooking meals to providing employment coaching so people with disabilities can thrive in their communities.

One in 10 Minnesotans lives with some form of disability. For those requiring support, the 34,000 DSPs statewide provide an irreplaceable safety net. But our ability to provide these critical services has reached a tipping point, pushed to the brink by a perfect storm of COVID-19, wages that haven't kept up and an exodus of staff seeking less stressful work.

Many disability service providers are one shift away from seeing their entire systems crumble. We are accustomed to struggling to hire entry-level workers, but the problem has spread to every level of our organizations — and it's affecting the lives of people with disabilities.

When we are short-staffed or someone calls in sick, we can't close for the day like other industries. The people we serve need support for activities of daily living. Someone must step in — and the constant scramble to fill holes in care schedules and maintain services, especially 24-hour care, has led to unimaginable burnout and irreplaceable departures.

The impact this has on individuals who rely on us is real, and we are beyond worried.

In our current situation, we are falling short of capacity to fully support each person's unique needs. If we are unable to turn the tide on our staffing crisis, there will be severe consequences for individuals with disabilities and their families.

Providers are discontinuing providing access to activities in the community, and some are shutting down programs altogether. We are seeing individuals with disabilities being left with no choice but to move out of group homes where they have lived for years and back in with their families, who must adjust their lives. If family is not an option, where will these individuals go?

There is no relief in sight. In the past, we've called for raising wages to begin to address this problem, but a modest increase to an already inadequate hourly rate is not the answer. Recent increases have helped recruit new people to our field, but consistent understaffing is leading to fatigue and burnout. Many dedicated people who truly care about this work and the people they support can't manage the increased demands of the job, even with a little more cash in their pockets.

This crisis has been overlooked; it's time for it to be placed in the spotlight. We need help. We need more people to understand the potential consequences and to care about the lives on the line. We need more compassionate people to find their way into this profession, not just for the modest signing bonuses and overtime checks, but for the opportunity to make a difference.

Help us spread the word about our commitment to serving and meeting the needs of individuals with disabilities and their right to live fully in our communities.

And if you're not in the workforce or you're looking for a career change, please consider joining this rewarding field. Despite these challenges, people are called to serve and make a meaningful impact in the lives of people with disabilities. 

Sue Schettle is CEO of ARRM. This article is also submitted on behalf of: Shannon Bock, executive director, CCRI Inc.; Anna Hegland, senior director, Dungarvin Minnesota; Ric Nelson, president and CEO, EON Inc.; Bill Tiedemann, executive director, Hope House of St. Croix Valley; Jon Nelson, executive director, Residential Services, Inc.; Alan Berner, vice president, community services, the Phoenix Residence Inc.