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May 4, 2023

Report: Job vacancies piling up in human services sector

PHOTO | Courtesy of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association The Massachusetts Senior Care Association said the state's nursing homes are at a "crisis point."

The pandemic, the "Great Resignation" and high inflation has exacerbated an already-strapped human services industry in Massachusetts, raising vacancy rates for jobs that provide services for elderly, disabled and mentally ill populations up to an estimated 20 percent last fall, according to a new report.

There are 160,000 jobs in human services but a declining working age population and increased service needs mean some of the state's most vulnerable residents have less access to these services, the report says.

A sample of human services providers surveyed in October and November of 2022 reported that of their more than 13,000 full-time, part-time and per diem client-facing positions, the vacancy rate was 27 percent. In the Human Services Providers Charitable Foundation report released Wednesday, the foundation estimated there was at least a 20 percent vacancy rate across the sector.

Employers across industries are struggling with workforce shortages, but the foundation report highlights the human services sector, pointing out that even before the COVID-19 pandemic workers were leaving the industry for higher-paying jobs elsewhere.

After a decade of steady growth, human services employment declined by 10 percent between 2016 and 2020, it says. At the same time, establishments offering these services grew by about 10 percent, creating an even wider gap of providers to those in need of care.

Human services workers represent 5 percent of all Massachusetts employment and there is high demand for these services, which span from mental health and substance abuse treatment and child, disabled and elderly care services, to running community food, housing, emergency and other relief services, the report says. The direct service workforce is expected to grow by 22 percent to over 180,000 workers by 2030, with annual vacancies topping 23,000 people.

"This sector has demonstrated time and again that the residents of the Commonwealth expect more, and there is a critical need for human services workers in Massachusetts," foundation board chair Sandra McCroom and president and CEO Michael Weekes wrote.

The foundation found the median income of human service workers is about $15,000 under the state median, at $34,273. One in six workers earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level and the industry has significantly more women and people of color than the state average, with 80 percent of workers identifying as women and 36 percent as people of color.

The report adds that many low-paid human services workers are moving to other industries such as education and state agencies.

"The Commonwealth's purchasing system and its Legislature must radically infuse additional capital to fairly reimburse providers with rates supporting adequate funding to compensate workers and ensure the safety net is intact," McCroom and Weekes said.

Several bills filed this session would increase pay for staff who work in health and human services.

A Sen. Cindy Friedman and Rep. Kay Khan bill would increase human services workers' payment to a "livable wage" (S 84 / H 191), and Reps. Jeffrey Roy and Smitty Pignatelli and Sen. Sal DiDomenico (S 77 / H 214) would establish a student loan repayment program for human service workers, intended to encourage individuals to enter the field and maintain employment in programs.

The omnibus "nursing home bill" (H 648 / S 279) would increase pay for staff who work in nursing homes and long-term care facilities to a "living wage." It would also establish an extended care career ladder grant program for nurses' aides, home health aides, homemakers and other entry-level workers in long-term care, create a grant program for nursing facility supervisory and leadership training, and establish a tuition reimbursement program for certified nursing assistant training.

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