SALT LAKE CITY — Families and agencies that serve people with disabilities called on state leaders to address a “staffing crisis” this week for a Medicaid program that helps people with disabilities live their lives. Thousands are on a waiting list to receive these services.
For just about his entire life, Conner Ridges has needed constant supervision. He is 25 years old, just over six feet tall and weighs more than 200 pounds. But when he was three years old, he was diagnosed with autism and other developmental disabilities.
“He’s our most precious possession,” his mom, Lisa Ridges, said. “We love this kid more than anything in the world, and every second he’s away from us, we worry about him so much.”
During KSL’s interview at the home of Lisa and Russ Ridges, Conner happily walked around the home, occasionally laughing and walking over to his parents. But Conner’s disabilities can often lead to him hurting himself or others.
“He hurts himself pretty bad and it can come out of nowhere. And he’s been aggressive toward other people. And he really needs one-on-one supervision,” Lisa said.
Which is why when Conner is away from his home, he spends his time at a day program from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. This allows his parents to work outside the home and gives Conner the opportunity to live a life outside the home.
The program is funded by a state Medicaid program that offers services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Conner is one of about 6,000 people benefiting from the program.
Lisa said, “Knowing there are people who are watching him who are trained to makes all the difference in the world.”
But families like the Ridges, and agencies that serve those with disabilities, say a labor shortage is straining the system, and that more than 4,000 others with disabilities are on a waiting list.
“We want people living with disabilities to live in the community like everyone else, and not be forced into institutional placements,” said Nate Crippes, public affairs supervising attorney at the Disability Law Center.
The center is one of nine agencies that sent a letter to Gov. Spencer Cox and other state leaders urging “immediate action to address the staffing crisis.” Without that action, the letter says, “we fear the collapse of the service system for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”
“People with disabilities across the state of Utah are unable to access services or are at risk of losing their services because of exponentially increasing turnover and vacancy rates for support staff. HCBS providers strive to provide high quality care, help people be integrated, and ensure that people in services have direction over their lives, but the staff shortage is threatening this,” the letter states.
And Crippes says a big part of the problem is that the average wage of these workers is $12.75.
“Without an increase from the legislature, it’s not like providers can all the sudden start bumping wages to do that,” Crippes said.
Meantime, businesses across hospitality and other industries are increasing wages to attract more workers. And the Ridges say they’ve seen it firsthand with employees who worked with Conner.
“She was amazing, and she was watching him pretty much full-time,” Lisa said. “She left in August because she could make more money cleaning houses and waitressing. Honestly, it’s a lot easier to flip burgers at McDonalds than to do what they’re doing. But what they’re doing is so critical.”
The letter to state leaders also said, “While we appreciate the efforts the state has already undertaken to address this issue with past provider rate increases and the addition of the ARPA FMAP increase for provider wages, more must be done to ensure that people with disabilities can continue to access services.
“The ARPA increased FMAP will provide a three-year, 5% increase, resulting in an additional $1 per hour wage increase for staff, however, this new average $12.75 wage for direct support professionals is insufficient to attract and retain staff in the current market.”