Outlook 2022: Schenectady ARC meets pandemic challenges to ‘maintain a level of quality’

Pine Ridge Industries work area leader Sarah Laird oversees production worker Zack Gabriel as he wraps new soaps by RAD Soap Co. on Jan. 20
Pine Ridge Industries work area leader Sarah Laird oversees production worker Zack Gabriel as he wraps new soaps by RAD Soap Co. on Jan. 20

SCHENECTADY — Favorable funding news from the governor’s office has Schenectady ARC staff hopeful that 2022 will be a year of stabilization.

Over the past two years, the organization, which supports individuals with intellectual and other developmental disabilities, has scrambled to address pandemic-related challenges ranging from program closures to a staff shortage.

At the onset of the pandemic, the ARC’s residences went into lockdown, day and transportation programs were shuttered, and therapy and health care visits transitioned to Zoom sessions. The ARC found ways to reassign all displaced staff members so that no employee was put out of a job.

As the pandemic progressed and COVID-related program restrictions began to ease, the organization was hit with the opposite problem — a staff shortage.

“Around February and March of 2021, our vacancies shot up incredibly,” said Executive Director Kirk Lewis. “They almost doubled last February, March, April, and they’ve stayed high ever since.”

Fully staffed, Schenectady ARC would have about 550 employees.

“I think we could fill 100 direct-support professional positions tomorrow if we had people come in, maybe even more,” Lewis said.

A major hurdle to hiring is the low base-pay rate the organization has been obliged to offer direct-support professionals who work in the ARC’s houses and day programs, providing support services to people with developmental disabilities.

New York state reimburses a set amount for each day a person lives in one of the ARC’s residences and for the services each program participant receives.

“Last year, the Legislature put in a 1% cost of living adjustment, and in the 10 or 11 years before that we had only received one increase of a tenth of a percent,” Lewis said.

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During that time period, there were increases targeted at specific categories of workers, but none were large and often those increases were accompanied by budget cuts in other areas, he added.

Confined by the state’s funding parameters, in 2021 the ARC’s base-pay rate for direct-support professionals was $12.80 an hour, although extra pay could be earned for working nights and weekends, and for obtaining additional training.

On Jan. 1, the organization was able to raise that hourly rate to $14, which is still less than what fast-food restaurants are paying their employees, Lewis pointed out.

Lewis said Gov. Kathy Hochul’s fiscal year 2023 executive budget, the highlights of which were announced Jan. 18, is the best his field has seen in many years. It provides a 5.4% cost of living adjustment for the ARC’s programs — funds he said will be invested in the organization’s workforce.

“The other benefit of the cost of living adjustment is that it gets built into our rates. It is not a one-time payment, so we can use it to support ongoing expenses like higher wages,” Lewis said.

In addition, certain ARC direct-support professionals will be eligible for $3,000 bonuses, a benefit that should aid in employee recruitment, he said.

The ongoing staff shortage has posed challenges for ARC employees and residents alike.

“It’s been a real challenge to maintain a level of quality,” Lewis said. “Safety is our first priority, making sure you’ve got enough [staff] to keep people safe, to provide the basics that you need, especially in our residences, which are open 24/7. So that means sometimes extras don’t happen — getting out for an outing, doing one-on-one shopping or going to a movie. Often we don’t have the staff to do those things. We hate that, but we are prioritizing and safety comes first.”

Employees from administration on down are working outside their job descriptions to keep people safe and operations running. Rebecca Conover, a program manager at ARC, said the added workload has been a challenge.

“A lot of the direct-support professionals and a lot of the managers are working crazy amounts of hours to make sure the staffing ratios are safe and that the needs of the individuals are being met,” she said.

Prepandemic, ARC residents were often out in the community, attending day programs and visiting friends and family. Staff still find ways to bring residents on outings whenever it’s possible to do so safely, taking them on van rides or to pick up takeout meals. But with COVID’s highly contagious omicron variant still circulating, residents are home much of the time — and that exacts a mental and physical toll.

“A lot of the population that we live with now, they have stayed home so often that their mobility has declined and they’re not as well as they were before,” Conover explained.

Kristina Collins, assistant director for the ARC’s New Direction employment services program, often steps outside of her management role to provide direct support to ARC clients. At times she has also found herself shoveling snow or performing janitorial tasks.

“There’s no task that is not included in our job titles right now,” she said, noting that the teamwork she has witnessed at the ARC has been amazing. “You do what you’ve gotta do to get the job done, get the programs covered and to support the people that are in our programs, because that’s what we’re here for.”

Collins’ official role is to oversee the ARC’s client-centered employment efforts. The ARC has employment specialists on staff who provide support to individuals with developmental disabilities who are employed in the community. The organization also offers prevocational services. Program participants learn transferable job skills and work habits while performing production work at Pine Ridge Industries, the ARC’s Scotia-based production and manufacturing center. Pine Ridge employs between 30 and 50 individuals with developmental disabilities.

Despite staff shortages at businesses statewide, Collins said it is still a struggle for individuals with developmental disabilities to find integrated employment in the community. Lewis agreed, estimating there is a 70% to 80% unemployment rate for people with developmental disabilities who have a desire to work.

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Those who do secure employment might not presently have access to needed support from the ARC’s employment specialists due to the staff shortage, Collins noted.

COVID has pushed ARC leadership to rethink the organization’s service models.

Early in the pandemic, telehealth, online clinical work and Zoom social events became part of the programming. Now, larger shifts are being considered.

“We definitely accelerated our use of technology in the pandemic and accelerated the potential for doing things in ways that are more focused on the individual, rather than asking them to conform to a day program or specific residential program,” Lewis said.

The organization is investigating ways that technology can help residents live more independently, as well as help to reduce the number of staff members needed to oversee each house.

The ARC previously operated day program sites in Princetown and Rotterdam, both of which were shut down at the pandemic’s onset. A decision was made not to reopen the Princetown site in the fall of 2020, before the staffing shortage.

“People are looking for smaller, more community-based settings,” Lewis explained. “I do think we’re in a period of time where we’re going to come out of the pandemic and we’re going to be able to really restructure what we do and how we do it, and have more diverse, probably smaller, more community-based programs than we had before the pandemic.”

This year, however, innovation will be on hold while leadership looks to invest in the workforce and bring staffing, programs and services back to what they were prepandemic.

“We’re stretched like we haven’t been stretched before, and I also think we are ready to rebound and be in a much stronger position very quickly,” Lewis said.

At a glance
Schenectady ARC was founded in 1952 by parents of children with intellectual and other developmental disabilities.

The organization operates programs throughout Schenectady County that offer options and supports for individuals of all ages and abilities. Using a person-centered planning process, ARC staffers work to find the right combination of supports and services to help each person achieve their goals and dreams.

The ARC supports individuals seeking employment, residential services, day services, medical or other clinical services and recreation programs.

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