Dear Friends and Colleagues:
For most of us, this time of year is one where we reflect on the year that is ending and look forward to the start of a new one. It is a time to reflect on what we have accomplished and been through, how we can do better, achieve more and improve our lives in the coming year and beyond. While it has only been two months that I've served as your acting Commissioner, I have had the privilege of meeting many of you as I have traveled around the state to see programs, visit homes, and most importantly, meet with the people we support and their family members, our DSPs in the field, and everyone involved in providing services to people with developmental disabilities. In 2022, I plan to do even more of that.
As all of you know, throughout this past year we have continued to be challenged by the ongoing pandemic, which gripped our state and nation for the second year in a row. COVID-19 has caused a significant workforce shortage affecting both our service providers and our state-operated homes and programs. Sadly, many of the people we support and their families have suffered as a result. It is impossible to discuss the future of OPWDD and its supports without addressing the workforce crisis that we face in our service system. It is part of the larger crisis being felt among human service sectors across the country and it will be OPWDD’s primary focus for the year ahead.
We have a great opportunity to turn things around as we enter the new year. A majority of OPWDD’s share of the American Rescue Plan (ARPA) funding from the federal government has been earmarked to help stabilize the not-for-profit direct support workforce. Incentives and bonuses are expected to be paid in the early part of 2022. And OPWDD will continue to advocate for a more permanent wage increase for this essential workforce within the New York State Budget.
And although our state workforce will not benefit from the ARPA investments, we have secured enhanced overtime funding for our state workforce and raised the starting rate of pay for new hires. We will continue to work with the state’s unions to provide additional support for our dedicated state operated direct support workers who have persevered throughout the pandemic, often working double and triple shifts to ensure the safety of the people we support.
I have said it before and I will say it again, our DSPs – both state operated and not-for-profit staff – are the heroes of the last two years. We are so grateful for all they have done and continue to do to support people with developmental disabilities.
OPWDD is looking at several initiatives to recruit and retain direct support professionals. New partnerships with BOCES, SUNY and CUNY will help us plant the seeds for a larger and more robust workforce in the future. These partnerships will help us recruit and train direct support staff on campuses across the state. The infusion of new DSPs will provide needed relief to our existing dedicated but exhausted workforce. Direct care work is a labor of love and those of us who work in this field know the many rewards that come with it. OPWDD will work in partnership with our stakeholder community to launch a media campaign to help recruit people into this field as a career. At a time when job seekers have many options, we want to show them why they should choose to work in our field. Additionally, we are also working towards professionalizing the workforce through credentialing.
As we endeavor to stabilize our system of supports, OPWDD will also focus on innovations in housing and employ technology and a fresh perspective to help modernize our approach to helping people achieve greater independence within their community. We will be looking to streamline our self-direction program and make it easier to access for more people. We will also be looking at our day program supports and how we can better incorporate employment, vocational and educational opportunities into what we do. We will be working to enhance our crisis support systems and looking to improve the ways we support children and adults with complex needs.
As we continue to drive toward true person-centered supports for the people we serve, we want no door to be closed and no goal to feel unattainable for those we support.
I am encouraged and energized by the commitment of Governor Hochul to ensure that people with developmental disabilities and their families are safe and have a voice and a seat at the table in New York State. Additionally, in my two months with OPWDD I have been struck by the dedication and commitment of the team here at the agency and that of our larger stakeholder community. While we have a lot of work ahead of us, and it will take time to make the needed progress, it is heartening to know that we are all working toward the same goals.
Thank you to everyone for welcoming me as your new Acting Commissioner these past two months. The warm welcomes I received and the dedicated people I have met only reinforce my commitment to this agency and to the people and families we serve and support.
In 2022, we encourage everyone to get the COVID-19 vaccine if you haven’t already done so and to get the booster if you are eligible. It will take all of us working together to end this pandemic.
Best wishes to you and yours for a happy and healthy 2022! I very much look forward to our continued partnership as we move the system forward, together, in the new year and beyond.