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OPINION

Bonuses for dishwashers and ice cream scoopers — so why not for the disability workforce?

Governor Charlie Baker should ‘take a look at what these people do . . . come and see, really see, the population being served and how underfunded and understaffed we are.’

Personal care assistant Maria Colville leaves her home in Cambridge, MA in March 2020 for work to care for an elderly woman in Watertown.
Personal care assistant Maria Colville leaves her home in Cambridge, MA in March 2020 for work to care for an elderly woman in Watertown.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

To deal with a post-pandemic labor shortage, employers are offering bonuses and raising wages to hire workers to wash dishes, scoop ice cream, and serve hamburgers.

When it comes to taking care of people with disabilities, the pay is low to start and, so far, unchanged by the same post-pandemic labor shortage. So far, the authority ultimately responsible for setting wages — the state of Massachusetts — hasn’t budged on increasing the current pay scale range of $15.53 to $16.50 an hour, which is about $32,000 a year. That, in turn, is causing a workforce crisis that affects thousands of people in Massachusetts. “I’m getting calls on a daily basis, asking, ‘Why can’t you take back my loved one?’ ” said Anne-Marie Bajwa, CEO of Charles River Center, which runs a day program for people with disabilities in Needham. “People are getting more desperate, saying ‘I need a break here.’ ”

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The months of isolation imposed by COVID-19 were especially tough on the disability community. Day programs shut down, leaving families to deal with the 24/7 needs of their loved ones. When programs restarted, strict social distance requirements limited capacity. Now, staffing problems are keeping them from going back to full capacity. Charles River, for example, has reopened for 150 people, with another 150 “begging to come back,” said Bajwa. She can’t take them back because she can’t find workers.

The state contracts with nonprofits like Charles River Center to provide these services. So what exactly is Massachusetts doing to bring the services back? “We are working hard with our providers to transition your loved ones back to in-person day and employment services when they are ready,” wrote Jane F. Ryder, the commissioner of the Department of Developmental Services, in a recent missive to the “DDS Community.” She went on to cite hiring and transportation challenges, adding, “As you may know, many industries are currently struggling with a staff shortage.”

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To some families, that translates to “suck it up.”

Linda Zack has done just that. She’s a single mother with two adult children — Noah, 43, and Perry, 38 — both with severe developmental disabilities. They can’t walk or talk and need help getting washed, dressed, and fed. Her children live in a Brookline condo, obtained via lottery through a Section 8 housing program. Before the pandemic, they went to the Charles River Center. For the past year, paid caregivers attended to them in their home, something Zack said makes her luckier than other families who are on their own. Her children’s caregivers have done “an extraordinary job . . . without them, I would be dead,” said Zack, who works as a dental hygienist. But the caregivers, too, were pushed to the brink during the pandemic, she said.

This week, after engaging in the kind of begging described by Bajwa, Zack’s children went back to Charles River. But Zack worries about others who can’t return because of staff shortages. She urges Governor Charlie Baker to “take a look at what these people do . . . come and see, really see, the population being served and how underfunded and understaffed we are.”

According to Leo Sarkissian, executive director of The Arc of Massachusetts, the Baker administration can set a higher pay benchmark, which must be funded by the Legislature.

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Asked to respond to the workforce shortage, the Baker administration responded with a list of what they did during the pandemic. It included providing PPE, hazard pay, and additional funds for day services to prevent permanent closures. I asked Sarkissian to review the response, and he said there was “nothing on the benchmarking of salaries for direct care staff in community programs or those working in individual family homes.”

The ability to increase pay is key to being competitive in the job market.

The “workforce crisis” is, at heart, a “worker value crisis.” What jobs are valued and how much more are businesses willing to pay to fill them? J.P. Licks will pay a $100 recruiting bonus for an ice cream scooper, and the Webber Restaurant Group offers a $250 referral bonus for a dishwasher. Workers at company-owned McDonald’s locations will see a 10 percent increase in their hourly wage.

Then there are the direct care workers and personal care attendants who take care of the most intimate needs of the most vulnerable people. How can we possibly value these workers less than someone serving up Happy Meals?


Joan Vennochi can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.