It Happened Again

As news organizations have reported, last week the U.S, Senate and House of Representatives passed a significant piece of legislation that has broad reach into several sectors.  Less well known nationally is that this bill originally contained billions of dollars specifically for agencies like Venture and, most importantly, for the amazing professionals who sacrifice so much to care for others.  Unfortunately, and infuriatingly, politicians sacrificed this portion of the bill in order to pass the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.  I am all for reducing inflation, but leaving behind an industry that helps others?  Again??? No, that is not okay anymore (or at least it shouldn’t be).

Our society and elected officials need to start valuing the work done by everyone who supports others and respect their professionalism and dedication.  Make no mistake, those who choose to help others in this world do not get the recognition they deserve and we need to change that both for them and for those they help.  It is beyond time that specific legislation committed to recognizing and supporting the work of the human services industry is passed at the federal level.  Too often, this type of commitment is embedded in larger pieces of legislation that fund a multitude of things.  As such, when it comes time to start debating a bill, our sector can be chopped away so that crucial money is spent elsewhere.  This is what happened last week.

It is troubling that the people who have chosen to build a career around helping others must do so in anonymity.  There needs to be a concerted effort to change this so that people who help others are finally recognized as the professionals they are.  Working in this field is not easy and it never has been but we still have extraordinary people who show up every day to make a difference in someone else’s life.  Everyone in an agency contributes something to support people who need help.  From the direct care staff and managers to the nurses and facilities people who help make homes safe and welcoming, too many dedicated people are still getting lost in the shuffle.  The workforce in this industry is the linchpin to our nation’s vast social safety net and a huge economic driver as well.  Congress needs to recognize this with sweeping action and commitment. 

Keep in mind that while so many other industries are still in the midst of a workforce crisis, our industry at the center of an ongoing social crisis.  The workforce has always been what is best about the human services sector but there just are not enough professionals to meet the current demand.  At this time, there are thousands of people in Massachusetts who cannot get their clinical and personal needs met.  In other words, a significant part of our society is being left behind due to a lack of resources.  That is the definition of a social crisis.  The only way to fix this is to finally recognize the importance and commitment of the people who have chosen a career of helping people.  Our politicians in Washington have to do this by funding the services we provide at a level that allows professionals to continue making a career out of this work.  It is time to move us to the front of the line for a change.

Up to the Senate Now

Budget season is well underway here in Massachusetts and the work continues in the legislature to create the financial framework and details for the new fiscal year that begins on July 1st.  The Governor submitted his proposal to the House of Representatives in January and the House sent their version to the Senate last month.  Now, it is up to the Senate to lead the way in recognizing the vital work done by skilled professionals in human services agencies by finally paying them a fair wage.  It is, in fact, long overdue.

Agencies in Massachusetts provide critical services to people with disabilities and mental illness through contracts with the Commonwealth.  These contracts contain dollars dedicated to staff salaries and those contracts have been woefully underfunded for more than a generation now.  This is at the heart of the workforce and social crisis that has existed for several years, well before Covid-19 entered our lives.  The industry has asked the legislature to add $351 million to the Governor’s budget proposal specifically to enhance pay for all of the people who spend their days and nights caring for others.  Yes, I understand that $351 million is a big number all by itself but it represents just 0.007% of the proposed state budget;  0.007% to reinforce the critical safety net that supports several hundred thousand Massachusetts residents each year.  This safety net is wholly dependent on a skilled workforce that must no longer be marginalized and taken for granted.  It is time for the Senate to take a bold step and reinvest in this workforce so that Massachusetts can remain a national leader in healthcare.

Unfortunately, the House chose not to add a single dime to the salary line proposal in the Governor’s budget.  This is why we need the Senate to step in and accept this challenge to give agencies the financial ability to stabilize and grow a tired workforce that has done so much for so many in this state.  Massachusetts already dedicates considerable resources to people with disabilities and other needs and it is something for which leaders in Boston should take a well-deserved bow.  However, we cannot stop short when it comes to paying skilled professionals a decent wage to help people who desperately need to be helped.  Massachusetts made a promise long ago to support individuals in the community rather than returning to the misery of state run institutions and that promise has been kept largely on the backs of a talented but depleted workforce.  These professionals need to be paid well enough that they can now afford to keep helping people.  Dedication to helping others should not have to come with a vow of poverty and the Senate can start the process to ensure it does not. Let’s see what they do with the chance. 

It’s Too Bad We Need To Keep Talking About This

Spring is finally here in Massachusetts and with it comes all the usual trappings: the days are getting longer, the temperature is starting to rise, trees are blooming, and people are spending lots of time outdoors.  Spring also means that budget season is in full swing now as the House of Representatives and the Senate in Boston take turns building a new annual budget for the Commonwealth.  Unfortunately, that process brings with it another annual rite: the need to ask yet again, why professionals who are dedicated to helping others are not paid as well as they should be.  And that conversation is getting old.

The Human Services sector in Massachusetts is a very large one with almost 200,000 jobs and close to ten percent of the population in the state receiving some type of help.  In spite of the many lives being touched and supported, the people who do this work, and do it tirelessly, remain vastly underpaid because state contracts do not provide for the type of pay they deserve.  As a result, the industry continues to experience a severe workforce crisis that is now leaving people who need help behind.  At this time, approximately 7,000 people with disabilities and mental health needs are unable to attend day programs they attended before the pandemic because there are not enough staff to help them.  Fixing this crisis begins with finally paying professionals a truly competitive wage and this starts with the legislature.  People on Beacon Hill need to step up and recognize the incredible contributions and skills of these professionals and the positive impact their work has across this state.  The time to discuss the issue is over and the time to fix it is now.

Individuals who work in the human services sector already live a life of sacrifice.  They put in grueling hours, miss holidays with their families, miss birthday parties, risk physical harm, and face the constant emotional strain of the work they do.  For all of this sacrifice, the average annual pay for direct care staff is still well over ten thousand dollars below the state average.  How can this still be the case?  Every year we talk about the vital work being done by people in this field and the uncommon skills they have.  And yet, we are still left to justify why they should be paid a livable wage in Massachusetts, a state with a very high cost of living.  Without the amazing men and women in this challenged workforce, hundreds of thousands of people would be at even greater risk than they are now.  In short, human services professionals solve a great many problems for Massachusetts and they are absolutely entitled to significantly higher wages for the heavy burden they carry. 

The social safety net in Massachusetts is one that leaders in the state should be proud of and one they have invested in over many decades.  However, that system is approaching a breaking point because of a workforce crisis that existed long before the pandemic came along.  There is a tremendous array of programs and services available in the Commonwealth but the people who directly provide those services remain terribly underpaid.  Countless people have left the industry because they simply cannot afford to do the work they love.  It is time to fix this by funding contracts that pay professionals appropriately for their commitment and unique abilities.  Without them, there is no safety net at all.

This Can’t Be the New Normal

It’s difficult to observe the recent spate of violence in our country and not be shaken.  Last week, we watched law enforcement track down someone who mailed bombs to people he never even met.  Thankfully, no one was hurt in these attempted assaults but that relief was short lived. 

On Saturday, we learned that a bigot entered a synagogue in Pennsylvania and brutally murdered almost a dozen people who were simply there to embrace their religion.  To call this attack horrific is to engage in gross understatement. 

In the past few years we have been forced to watch in horror as people in our country are killed at concerts and at schools and in offices.  While the people who perpetrate this violence are responsible for their actions, we too have a responsibility; we can’t let this become the new normal in our country.

The voice is a powerful tool.  It informs and expresses but it can also lead.  Those of us who have a voice are required to use it to improve things and not to make our situation worse.  For far too long, the daily discourse in this country has been driven not by respect and reason but by anger and abuse.  Whereas people once disagreed, they now just seethe. 

It seems that disregard has replaced discussion and hatred has replaced tolerance.  There are countless people around us who need help and they may never get it so long as rancor defines so much of our conversation.  It is absolutely incumbent upon those with a voice to use that voice to ensure this doesn’t happen.

A return to civility is the only means by which we can recreate safe places where people can disagree and then compromise to advance the greater good.  Our society has devolved to a place where too many people have decided that someone with a different perspective is wrong and dangerous.  Sadly, many of these people are in powerful positions in state and national government. 

It is absolutely necessary for anyone who leads to role model the importance of acceptance and inclusion so that our future is better than our present.  People have the right to be safe when expressing their views and when disagreeing with someone who sees things differently.  It remains concerning that what was once such a tenet of basic freedom is now so endangered.

Lastly, vitriol must be rejected at every turn now.  This anger drives too much of our dialogue and it makes everything worse.  It causes people to react instead of listen and dangerously inflames too many conflicts that don’t need to be conflicts at all.  We must all beware of agenda-driven commentary and grating, thinly-veiled rhetoric that blames victims for what happened to them.  The violence we see unfolding around us is not an opportunity for one side to prevail against another.  Instead, it is a dark reminder that we have created a climate where people who have differing ideas, beliefs, or even just opinions are enemies of each other. 

If this is in fact the new normal, the future is much bleaker than it needs to be.  Let everyone be committed to using a voice and speaking up to make that future as bright as it should be.