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Nonprofits struggle to find staff to care for the disabled, aid veterans and answer hotline calls

Roland Delia, left, DSP direct support counselor, assists

The labor shortage is hitting many industries, and nonprofits are having a particularly hard time finding staff. Janet Koch, CEO or Life's WORC, says she has never seen such a profound staffing crisis.  Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Local nonprofits are being forced to do more with less as organizations serving some of the Island's most vulnerable face staff shortages and increased hiring challenges.

Local organizations that focus on domestic violence, mental health, developmental disability and poverty said recruiting — always tough — has grown even more difficult in the pandemic-changed job market. That's left existing employees, facing heavier workloads in low-paying, often challenging jobs, in danger of burnout.

As the state's minimum wage has risen, state-set reimbursements for many nonprofit services have remained stagnant, leaving many industry workers performing demanding tasks such as caring for disabled group-home residents while earning the same hourly pay as cashiers at big-box stores.

Add to that the current $300-a-week federal supplement to unemployment benefits that many observers say offers an incentive for laid-off workers to stay home, and nonprofits are facing a perfect hiring storm.

"We need more than 40 people," said Janet Koch, chief executive of Life’s WORC, a nonprofit providing behavior analysis, housing and employment services to developmentally disabled adults and children. "If I can’t find those people, I can’t open the day program [for half my residents], which means people with disabilities are stuck staying home."

The day habilitation program, which teaches independent life skills ranging from effective communication to managing finances, is operating at half-capacity, she said, with about 125 clients waiting to return when staffing permits.

Koch said the $300 unemployment supplement has added to her hiring woes. "If you have minimum wage jobs and people are now on unemployment, there is no way of getting them back," she said.

Impact on families

For families like Debbie Levine's, the staffing issues at Koch's organization have created gaps in vital programming.

Levine, of Roslyn, has two children with autism. Her son Jamie, 24, has lived at a Life's WORC group home for over a year, and she said service interruptions began in 2020, when the pandemic put a halt to recreational trips and visits to the nonprofit's day habilitation center.

But months after much of the Island's economy has opened back up, staffing issues continue to limit access to resources like day hab, Levine said.

"Every day, Monday through Friday, he was supposed to be going to a day habilitation center," she said. "He hasn’t been back since COVID started."

Levine said while her son has been unable to return to his normal pre-COVID routine, she is understanding of the pressures impacting the organization, and thankful for the work done by staffers.

"They went above and beyond in a lot of ways to try and entertain the kids and have activities for them without being able to leave the premises," Levine said. "For that we’re extremely grateful."

But while she appreciates their efforts, Levine said she worries that staffing issues could result in losing some of the best people who work with her son.

"The last thing I would want to do is have the people who went above and beyond to be burned-out because there’s not enough staff and they can’t keep up with the extra shifts," she said.

Need is 'magnified'

Industry burnout has become a big problem, said Rebecca Sanin, president and CEO of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island. The group, an umbrella organization that works with over 150 area nonprofits, helps connect in-need Islanders with social service programs like state health insurance, SNAP food stamp benefits, and temporary rental assistance.

"We’ve had a year of trauma, so need was ... magnified in the nonprofit sector in a way that we’ve never seen before," said Sanin, who is running for Huntington Town supervisor.

Many nonprofit workers are attracted to the mission of an organization, and often they have experienced some of the problems nonprofits try to remedy, such as financial hardship or addiction, Sanin said. And while that empathy can help in normal times, during the pandemic, some of her employees went through a form of "survivor’s guilt," and felt obligated to work longer hours to help impacted communities, leading to fatigue.

She said low pay also plays a role in burnout.

"The nonprofit sector is not known for being a high-wage sector," Sanin said. "Workers spent a year experiencing their own trauma, experiencing trauma from their clients, and many of them are making shifts, saying, ‘I don't know if I can continue doing this work.’"

An 'exodus' of staffers

Colleen Merlo, chief executive of the Association for Mental Health and Wellness in Ronkonkoma, which offers care management, housing and peer support services, echoed that concern, saying vacancies at her agency are up because of the strain of COVID-19.

"This past year has been hard on staff," Merlo said. "I’ve seen an exodus of people from nonprofits to corporations or government jobs because the benefits and salary are just at a scale that nonprofits cannot offer."

Koch noted that raises at nonprofits are few. "We have not seen a cost-of-living adjustment in 12 years," she said. The organization's expenses, including wages, were approved by the state legislature for a 1% cost of living increase effective this past April, though Life's WORC has yet to receive the added funding, she said.

That means a pay advantage that used to exist has disappeared.

Entry-level workers in the disability field used to earn $2 to $3 above minimum wage, plus benefits like lower cost health insurance, dental, paid time off and retirement accounts, Koch said. But over the past five years, Long Island's minimum wage has risen to $14 an hour, and will go up to $15 at the end of the year. She said the state has not given nonprofits the funds needed to bump up their employees' pay and maintain that differential.

"Legislators have fought to increase [employee] wages with minimal success," Koch said. "The current crisis is calling for a fundamental change in workforce compensation. If there is not significant attention and change, the people we support will not receive the quality care they are entitled to receive," she said.

"Everyone should be earning a living wage, and $15 barely cuts it," Koch added. "Taking care of people with behavioral and special needs deserves more."

Increased need

Demand for many of the services nonprofits provide have skyrocketed during the pandemic, as tens of thousands of Islanders found themselves without work or access to child care, or dealt with abusive family dynamics during a period of intense strain and isolation.

"Initially, it got very quiet," said Wendy Linsalata, executive director at L.I. Against Domestic Violence in Central Islip. "Within two or three weeks, it was no longer quiet."

Throughout the health crisis, Linsalata’s organization and its 35 staffers have been able to keep services going, including its 24-hour victims' hotline. But the demand has grown, making the dearth of qualified applicants — or any applicants at all — even more painful. The group has three openings.

Additionally, she said, the organization is having a hard time finding applicants who want to take the in-person jobs needed by domestic violence group.

"We're dealing with people whose lives are in danger," she said. "We need staff."

Now hiring

A sampling of jobs available at Long Island nonprofits.

Veteran peer outreach specialist

Duties: Establish supportive relationships with veterans and their families who face barriers to financial self-reliance; work with the Economic Opportunity Council of Suffolk County to help area veterans find housing through the Association for Mental Health and Wellness.

Salary: $16 an hour, plus some benefits.

Direct support professional

Duties: Support disabled individuals living at Life’s WORC residences, including activities that encourage independence, assist with daily living activities and transport groups for recreation trips or outings.

Starting pay: $15 an hour, plus some benefits

Housing support specialist

Duties: Handle intake of residents, interact with residents and complete other housing-related tasks for L.I. Against Domestic Violence.

Starting pay: $15-$16 an hour, plus some benefits

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