Nonprofits wrestle to seek out employees to look after the disabled, assist veterans and reply hotline calls

Local nonprofits are being forced to do more with less as organizations serving some of the island’s most vulnerable people face staff shortages and increased hiring problems.

Local organizations focusing on domestic violence, mental health, developmental disabilities and poverty said recruiting – always difficult – has become even more difficult in the pandemic-changing job market. As a result, existing employees who are exposed to a higher workload in poorly paid, often challenging jobs are exposed to the risk of burnout.

As the state minimum wage increased, state reimbursements for many nonprofit services have stagnated, leaving many industrial workers to perform demanding tasks such as caring for handicapped group home residents while earning the same hourly wages as wholesale cashiers.

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

“We need more than 40 people,” said Janet Koch, executive director of Life’s WORC, a nonprofit that provides behavioral analysis, housing and job placement services to developmentally disabled adults and children. “If I can’t find these people, I can’t open the daily program [for half my residents], which means people with disabilities are stuck and staying at home. ”

The habilitation program, which teaches independent life skills from effective communication to managing finances, is half full, as around 125 customers are waiting for their return if the personnel permit allows it.

Koch said the $ 300 unemployment benefit compounded her hiring problems. “If you have minimum wage jobs and people are now unemployed, there is no way you can get them back,” she said.

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Kim Johnson of West Islip, property manager, left, and Briana Davis of Elmont, medical advisor, help attract resident Monica Ortiz to a Life’s WORC dormitory for adults with developmental disabilities in Dix Hills. Photo credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Effects on families

For families like Debbie Levine’s, the human resource problems in Koch’s organization created gaps in vital programming.

Levine from Roslyn has two children with autism. Her son Jamie, 24, has lived in a Life WORC group home for over a year, and she said the downtime began in 2020 when the pandemic halted recreational travel and visits to the nonprofit’s day habilitation center.

But months after much of the island’s economy reopened, staffing issues continue to limit access to resources like Day Hab, Levine said.

“Every day, Monday through Friday, he should go to a day habilitation center,” she said. “He hasn’t returned since the beginning of COVID.”

Levine said although her son was unable to return to his normal pre-COVID-19 routine, she understood the pressures affecting the organization and was grateful for the work of the staff.

“They went out of their way in many ways to entertain the children and provide activities for them without being able to leave the premises,” said Levine. “We are very grateful.”

Although she values ​​her efforts, Levine fears that staffing issues could lead to the loss of some of the best employees who work with her son.

“The last thing I want to do is get the people who did it all burned out because there aren’t enough staff and they can’t keep up with the extra shifts,” she said.

Demand is “increased”

Burnout has become a major problem in the industry, said Rebecca Sanin, president and CEO of Long Island’s Health and Welfare Council. The group, an umbrella organization that works with over 150 nonprofits in the area, helps connect islanders in need with social utilities such as government health insurance, SNAP grocery stamp benefits, and temporary rental assistance.

“We’ve had a year of trauma, so the need in the nonprofit sector has increased in ways we’ve never seen before,” said Sanin, who is a candidate for the Huntington Town regulatory agency.

Many nonprofits are drawn to an organization’s mission and have often experienced some of the problems nonprofits are trying to resolve, such as financial hardship or addiction, Sanin said. And while that empathy can help in normal times, some of their employees experienced some form of “survivor guilt” during the pandemic and felt compelled to work longer hours to help the affected communities, leading to fatigue.

She said low wages also play a role in burnout.

“The nonprofit sector isn’t known as the high wage sector,” said Sanin. “Workers have spent a year experiencing their own trauma, experiencing trauma from their customers, and many of them take turns saying, ‘I don’t know if I can continue this work.'”

An “exodus” of employees

Colleen Merlo, executive director of the Association for Mental Health and Wellness in Ronkonkoma, which provides care management, residential and peer support services, shared that concern and said the positions at her agency were vacant due to the exposure to COVID-19.

“Last year has been tough for employees,” said Merlo. “I’ve seen an exodus of people from nonprofits in corporations or government agencies because the benefits and salaries are of a magnitude that nonprofits cannot provide.”

Koch noted that salary increases are few and far between at nonprofits. “We haven’t seen a cost of living adjustment in 12 years,” she said. The organization’s expenses, including wages, were approved by state lawmakers for a 1% increase in the cost of living effective last April, although Life’s WORC has yet to receive the additional funding, she said.

This means that a previously existing wage advantage has ceased to exist.

Newcomers to the disability sector used to earn $ 2 to $ 3 above the minimum wage, plus benefits like cheaper health insurance, dentist, paid time off, and retirement accounts, Koch said. But in the past five years, the Long Island minimum wage has risen to $ 14 an hour and will climb to $ 15 by the end of the year. She said the state has not given nonprofits the funds they need to raise their employees’ salaries and maintain that gap.

“The legislature fought for the increase [employee] Wages with minimal success, “said Koch.” The current crisis calls for a fundamental change in employee wages. Without significant attention and change, the people we support will not get the high quality care they are entitled to, ”she said.

“Everyone should earn a living wage, and $ 15 is barely enough,” added Koch. “Taking care of people with behavioral and special needs deserves more.”

Increased need

Demand for many of the services nonprofits offer skyrocketed during the pandemic as tens of thousands of islanders were without work or access to childcare, or struggled with abusive family dynamics during a period of intense stress and isolation.

“It got very quiet at first,” said Wendy Linsalata, general manager of LI Against Domestic Violence in Central Islip. “Within two or three weeks it wasn’t quiet anymore.”

Throughout the health crisis, Linsalata’s organization and its 35 employees were able to keep their services, including the 24-hour helpline for victims, running. But the demand has grown and there is a lack of qualified applicants – or applicants at all – even more painful. The group has three openings.

In addition, the organization is having difficulty finding applicants who want to take the personal jobs needed by the domestic violence group.

“We are dealing with people whose lives are in danger,” she said. “We need staff.”

Hire now

A selection of jobs available at Long Island Nonprofits.

Experienced peer outreach specialist

Tasks: Building supportive relationships with veterans and their families who face barriers to financial self-sufficiency; Working with Suffolk County’s Economic Opportunity Council to help area veterans find accommodation through the Association for Mental Health and Wellness.

salary: $ 16 per hour, plus some benefits.

Direct support professional

Tasks: Support disabled people living in Life’s WORC dormitories, including activities that promote independence, assist with daily living activities, and transport groups for recreational trips or excursions.

Starting salary: $ 15 an hour plus some perks

Specialist in housing subsidies

Tasks: Handle resident admission, interact with residents, and do other dwelling-related tasks for LI Against Domestic Violence.

Starting salary: $ 15 to $ 16 an hour, plus some perks

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