I have several updates regarding the services and supports of Lifeworks. Over the past six months, we have continued to look at practices, planning and programming that will allow us to increase our support, with a goal of restoring services as close to our pre-pandemic levels as much as possible.
As many of you know – whether you participate in our programs, have family members or friends served by our programs, or are one of our incredibly dedicated staff – the ability of Lifeworks to return people to our programs has been a challenging issue for the past 24 months due to the workforce crisis that dominates much of our daily lives. In this blog post, I will provide an overview of the challenges we have faced, the successes we have had in addressing the issue, and our plans moving forward, including some exciting news about a grant we have received specifically to address our workforce challenges.
Over the past year, our programs, as well as many of our fellow organizations in our field, have been challenged by staffing vacancies, fewer candidates applying for jobs, and a reduction in our ability to retain employees for more than one year, especially in positions that are considered direct support. We have also seen an increase in the number of staff needed to support those we serve, in order to meet the additional challenges that these individuals in our care are experiencing.
Many factors have contributed to our workforce crisis. Yes, there are fewer people in the workforce in general post-pandemic. But more people are looking for flexible work schedules and jobs that allow remote work. Another factor is big increases in salaries for less demanding jobs; with starting wages rising to more than $20 per hour in some cases. As those who are served by Lifeworks or provide our services know, our mission is carried out overwhelmingly in person.
Most of you also know that the rates at which Lifeworks is reimbursed for our services are determined by our state and federal funding sources. The reimbursement rate paid for hourly staff averages $16.50 for direct care, which is below the amount we currently pay our staff and below where are goals are for our compensation. As an agency, we continued to provide our programs over the past three years thanks to a heroic group of staff members who worked many hours of overtime to ensure the health, safety and care of those we serve.
During this time, Lifeworks worked hard to identify several resources that allowed us to increase our pay levels for all staff, especially our direct support staff. In fact, over the past 18 months, we have increased the level of pay for our direct support staff by at least $2.50 per hour, which works out to at least 15 percent. But we know we need to do more, and we intend to do more. Short-term funding provided by the state has helped us provide significant bonuses to staff over the past two years, but our number one goal is to keep raising the salaries for all our employees.
In the late summer and fall, Lifeworks began to assess in far greater detail our recruiting, interviewing and onboarding practices. It was clear we needed to adjust to the further changing world we face. We took the following steps to increase the effectiveness of our hiring:
- Provided a raise of $1 per hour for all staff;
- Redesigned our recruitment strategy, giving program leadership a stronger role in assessing candidates and managing the interview process directly at their programs;
- Shortened our in-person onboarding process and offered new-hire orientation on a weekly basis, and increased self-implemented online training programs;
- Increased to $2,000 our retention bonus to new employees, and to $3,000 for our current employees who recommend/recruit a successful new hire; and
- Applied for and received a statewide Competitive Workforce Development grant. This grant will provide funding over the next two years for a program designed by Lifeworks to further improve our hiring and retention processes.
Through these initiatives and the work of our staff in implementing them, I am pleased to report that we believe we are now turning a corner. The workforce development grant mentioned above is one of only five in the state awarded to organizations serving people with intellectual and development disabilities. This grant will enhance our human resources systems, staffing in our HR department, improve onboarding and retention training, enhance our internal and external communications, and provide incentives so that our valuable employees can serve as mentor-leaders for our new staff.
Furthermore, as of February 1st, we have reduced our vacancies to 57, from 95 in September (a 15 percent improvement!) and our retention numbers for new hires and staff over their first two years have begun to trend upward.
Still, much hard work remains. We want the people we serve and their families to know that we understand the effect these staffing challenges have had on your lives as well as those of our staff. We know the incredible value these positive trends will have on the services we provide in your lives. Increasing our staffing impacts the ability of some to return to services; for others it stabilized their home and enhances their lives to better be able to participate in their community. We look forward to continuing to stay focused on this goal.
On behalf of our Board of Directors and our Agency Leadership, we thank you for your patience and your commitment.