Georgia advances wage hikes for caregivers amid ‘workforce crisis’



Industry officials fear the increases won’t be enough

Georgia officials are moving ahead with a $5 an hour wage increase for workers who care for people with disabilities, in a push to slow its hemorrhaging workforce for this vulnerable population.

On Thursday, officials with the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities briefed their board members and providers on the state’s proposal to hike wages for these caregivers. The workers are now paid about $10.63 an hour through government funds, and the state is proposing a boost to about $15.18 an hour, based on recommendations from an outside firm. Changes in the job market have led to a severe shortage of caregivers, who are exiting the profession for better wages in lower stress industries.

“We’re in a workforce crisis,” said Kevin Tanner, who serves as the commissioner for DBHDD. “I cannot underestimate how important and significant this [wage increase] is to the safety net here in our state.”

The worker exodus is fueling a breakdown of the system that is supposed to protect residents with severe disabilities. Organizations that serve Georgians with intellectual and developmental disabilities are now closing down, and the places that have stayed open are operating with a skeleton staff. In the fall, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spoke to caregivers who say they string together other part-time or full-time jobs to pay their own bills. Some caregivers said they work as much as 100 hours a week.

This marks the first time in years that the state has examined the rates for caregivers. Across the board, providers would see a nearly 40% increase in pay on average, costing the state about $91 million annually. The federal government would pay much more: about $176 million annually. This includes not just the wages, but benefits and other program costs. There are other increases in wages, like for providers who serve people with higher needs.

Those who work in the industry fear that the increase is still not enough. Providers are pushing for more than $18.50 to $22 an hour, said Diane Wilush, president and CEO of United Cerebral Palsy of Georgia and United Cerebral Palsy of South Carolina.

Wilush, whose organization oversees day programs and group homes in the state, said they are incredibly grateful for the proposed increases.

“This group of people has been neglected for well over a decade,” she said. “But we still have to fine tune it to make it workable, because this is a swipe at the apple that we’ve not had. ....And we’ve got to get it right.”

John Zoller, who serves as the board chair for Georgia Options, a non-profit that helps provide services for people with disabilities, said the proposal is still a significant improvement over the status quo.

“The increase as being recommended in the study -- while not what I think it should be -- is certainly better than it is right now,” he said. “And any increase definitely appreciated.”

The turnover rate for these caregivers, who are formally known as “Direct Support Professionals” is about 47% in Georgia, according to a survey from 2020.

The state doesn’t track how many caregivers are in Georgia, but about 13,400 people with disabilities now have waivers for government-funded services. Approximately 7,000 people are still on a waitlist, some of whom have been on there for years. The shortage of caregivers has meant that even some people who have waivers can’t access these services.

Tanner said it’s worth noting that these proposed wage increases are not final recommendations. His staff is still reviewing the hundreds of comments from providers and members of the public before making its official proposal, but he expects it to be very similar to what’s being presented today.

“We feel confident the numbers you’re getting today are very, very close to what our final recommendations will be,” he told reporters in a briefing on the proposal.

Once the department writes up its final recommendations, there are still other layers of state and federal approval before the wage hike would be approved. Tanner said he expects the earliest time would be at the end of 2023 or early 2024.