The Massachusetts state government allocates about $230 million each year to social service providers, which provide support for health care and group home workers, aides, therapists and other specialists.
But with inflation, increased interest in hybrid work and low salaries, a large number of people are leaving their jobs for retail or the food industry. And it’s causing a workforce crisis that some say could destroy the social services field entirely.
Chris Tuttle, CEO and chairman of healthcare provider Bridgewell, said the severe lack of funding threatened to close some of its services. Bridgewell offers more than 100 programs in Eastern Massachusetts, serving 6,500 people each year in group homes, adjustment programs and mental health clinics in Lowell, Danvers and Lynn.
Tuttle said the state funding for these nonprofits, provided by Chapter 257, is simply not enough. Without an additional $351 million — more than double the state’s current allocation — they won’t survive, he said. At the current wages they provide, Tuttle said social service work is no longer sustainable, but at the mercy of the state.
“Chapter 257’s position at $230 million sounds like a lot, and it is, but the median salary is about $16.79 an hour, or only about $34,923 a year. That’s before taxes,” Tuttle said. “We can’t attract staff, and because we can’t attract staff, we can’t expand our services. And in all honesty, we’re going to have to start looking at the possibility of take the services offline.”
Since the pandemic, more than 5,000 people have yet to return to Bridgewell’s day programs, primarily due to staffing shortages. Many of these people, Tuttle said, have developmental disabilities and thus lose valuable life skills support.
A few years ago, Bridgewell had about 140-150 job openings, but now 317 jobs are vacant. That’s nearly a quarter of the organization, Tuttle said.
As Governor Charlie Baker increased funding for Chapter 257 during his tenure, Tuttle said he was ‘stunned’ by how the state always reacts to a crisis instead of being proactive and defending the programs. in need.
“The fact that the Commonwealth did not, the fact that they resisted, is shortsighted, and it will cause significant problems in the near future,” Tuttle said. “We always take care of people and I think the state has always relied on us to always be a little too much there, because we’re at a point now that I don’t know if we’ll always be there.”
Brenna Carney, program director at the NFI Family Resource Center of Greater Lowell, said the organization has five full-time staff, but is currently short of a family support worker and a clinician. Although there is now a part-time clinician to replace him, Carney said it takes many months to properly train someone to work in the industry, so it is difficult to find a permanent and dedicated person willing to take in charge.
Funding for its program comes from the state Department of Children and Families, but that doesn’t mean the organization isn’t struggling like the rest of the industry.
“We’re only seven when we’re full, so even with two people down, we feel that,” Carney said. “Everyone would like more money, but in this nonprofit world, you’re not going to roll in the dough.”
Offering a food pantry, technical resources such as computers, parenting classes, mental health referrals and other resources, the Lowell NFI Center is an integral part of the community, Carney said, but it needs any help possible.
Michael Weekes is CEO and President of the Providers’ Council, Massachusetts’ largest organization for community health and social service programs, most of which are nonprofit. At just $230 million, Weekes said the average wage for workers was just under $17 an hour, but that’s just the median, meaning half the staff are approaching minimum wage. . And it’s not “competitive”.
The Supplier Council isn’t looking to expand its services or grow its network, Weekes said, but rather to provide fair pay to its hard-working employees. Weekes said it was “not unusual” to hear about workers working 100 hours a week.
“I think one of the things that is universal is the inability to have adequate manpower, to be able to deliver services, and in some cases that means certain services have been cut. or eliminated or that people are on a waiting list for needed services,” Weekes said. “While tragic, what seemed to make this tragic situation worse for us is that the Commonwealth does not have the financial resources to really make a difference.”
The state budget for the next fiscal year has yet to be finalized, and senators on Friday introduced amendments aimed at providing more funding to organizations and programs. An amendment, drafted in part by State Sen. Ed Kennedy, D-Lowell, would increase funding for Department of Developmental Disabilities Community Residential Services workers by $70 million, bringing the total to more than $1.5 billion of dollars.
According to Kennedy’s office, the amendment will be reworded to call for wage increases for workers in this industry. It is not finalized yet.
State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, said increasing Chapter 257 funding is one of his priorities in budget negotiations. He said he discussed the matter with Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues in March. Eldridge added that the situation for social services has become dire and that preliminary wording of the budget would raise the wages of the lowest paid workers in the industry by 75%.
“Too many social service workers are earning minimum wage or just above, given the tight labor supply we find ourselves in right now, some workers are leaving to work for Amazon or for McDonald’s,” said Eldridge. “We have to continue to make sure the pay is fair, and that’s where the legislature’s budget is so critical.”
Working in Lowell and helping at least 20 to 30 families each week, Carney said she sees how social services can have a direct and positive impact on local residents. She is passionate about the work, she says, but hopes workers can feel less overworked and better supported.
“Being a resource to the community, seeing firsthand what the needs are, is just rewarding, but also shows how important the field of social services is and how important it is to be in person, to make human connections and be really involved,” says Carney. “I just hope that as the community heals more people won’t be nervous about going back to social services and wanting to work with people again. I think it will only take us a few years to get back there.