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‘We’re sinking’: R.I. human services agencies face workforce crisis

Organizations in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut that help people with developmental disabilities and behavioral health needs are losing workers — and the people they help can’t get the services they need.

Bradley Hospital, the nation's first children's psychiatric hospital, in East Providence, R.I.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Looking Upwards, a Newport-based service provider for adults and children with developmental disabilities and behavioral health needs, should have about 1,000 employees. Right now it has about 680. And unlike other parts of the economy that are also facing a labor crunch, it can’t just close its doors if it doesn’t have enough people to work.

“It means we serve less people, because you can’t close at 3 o’clock like my Starbucks down the street,” said Carrie Miranda, the group’s executive director. “We don’t say ‘see you later’ at 3 to anyone, but what we do say is, ‘We can’t support you at all,’ and that’s a real crisis for families and individuals, way more than my Starbucks crisis.”


It is a problem in Rhode Island, and also in Connecticut and Massachusetts and around the country: human services organizations say they are facing a massive workforce crisis. They are having trouble finding new employees, and keeping the ones they have. Where once the chief competitor for talent was hospitals, now it’s retail, grocery or even Amazon. This comes at a time when demand is higher for these services.

“We’re sinking,” said Tina Spears, executive director of the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island, which represents 31 organizations providing services for children and adults with disabilities.

Providers from around the three-state region spoke on a Zoom webinar Monday to highlight the problem. It took two hours just to scratch the surface of the crisis for organizations working in developmental disabilities, mental health, addiction needs, domestic violence, homelessness, and the criminal justice system.

It is playing out in all three states. But it is particularly acute, according to providers, in Rhode Island, where pay is even lower in comparison to its regional peers. The state contracts out with private organizations for these sorts of services, but it’s been neglected and undervalued for years. Miranda’s organization, for example, has had to close for new referrals for early intervention, which helps babies and toddlers with developmental disabilities and delays.


Another piece of the puzzle: Rhode Island was the last in the region to act on American Rescue Plan Act funds. That began to change on Monday morning, when Governor Dan McKee, House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio announced a commitment to start acting on McKee’s proposal to spend 10 percent of the $1.1 billion in ARPA money that the state can allocate pretty much as it wants. (Other ARPA funds have flowed to Rhode Island, but they’re targeted toward specific areas, such as cities and towns.) The House and Senate finance committees will vote on it next week. The full General Assembly will reconvene in January, pegging the earliest date for final passage to about a month from now.

Among other things, McKee’s original plan called for $38.5 million for children, families, and social supports. The funds will go to, among other things, the early intervention programs that are having so much trouble right now.

McKee separately touted other forms of federal funds, including $57.4 million to support some 4,500 home- and community-based direct-care service workers. That will include money for bonuses, training and increased wages in settings from opioid treatment to home health agencies.

“Today, we are making a crucial investment in Rhode Island’s recovery,” McKee said in a news release.


Spears said she hadn’t been briefed on the exact details of the deal, which was being announced at the same time as the Zoom webinar, but she said it was a “step in the right direction.”

State Representative Liana Cassar, a Democrat of Barrington, said more could still be done.

“My guess is that it might help slow the anticipated exodus of employees in January,” she said in a written message to the Globe, “but will not solve the problem at all.”

Some pay rates for services, according to state Senator Louis DiPalma, a Democrat of Middletown, hadn’t changed in two decades. Meanwhile, people could go right across the border to Connecticut or Massachusetts and get better — though by no means great or in many cases even livable — pay.

“The time to act is yesterday,” DiPalma said. “It’s not even now. It’s yesterday.”

Brian Amaral can be reached at Follow him @bamaral44.