ACL Executive Director Sebrina Barrett’s Remarks from the 41st Annual ACLAIMH Conference:
As we rang in 2020, none of us would have been able to predict what was to come or how we would make it through to where we are today. Before mid-March, our Bring it Home Campaign was in full swing. Many of you participated in our rallies, and many of you participated in our well-attended annual lobby day. By working together, our advocacy through Bring it Home helped secure $97 million NEW dollars for mental health housing. It truly was extraordinary.
Then, COVID hit New York State, and almost everything shut down. But not you. You kept showing up, providing continuous and compassionate care during the worst of the pandemic. Often putting yourselves and your families at risk of becoming ill with a disease that we didn’t yet know much about.
Remember those first few weeks? Schools shut down, and many of us were juggling helping our children with remote learning while continuing to go to work. PPE was scarce, and officials wanted us to save the masks and equipment that we did have for essential workers. Governor Cuomo was on our radios and TVs each day, updating us on the numbers of persons who were hospitalized, urging us to be safe. Buying groceries was more like hunting and gathering, as you would see only empty shelves when looking for everyday necessities like toilet paper and paper towels.
It was in those first few weeks of the pandemic that I became the executive director of ACL. Before my first official day, I was able to meet with ACL’s amazing staff — Toni, Doug, Pam, Justin and David — at the Office of Mental Health. There, we joined with OMH’s team to pack PPE for distribution.
We spent the next several weeks in constant contact with our members, OMH, New York City’s DOHMH, and our advocacy partners throughout the state, as we all tried to understand how to best serve New York’s most vulnerable citizens throughout the worst of the pandemic.
In addition to advocacy for funding, we worked to deliver additional benefits to ACL members. Due to the generous support of our sponsors, we were able to offer the ACL Management Symposium at no charge. We began holding Member Forums, in addition to our regional meetings, to provide a way for members to share both challenges and solutions with each other. It seemed the situation we faced changed almost daily.
Our members did what they always do — find a way to make it work, despite chronic underfunding. They secured PPE to keep staff and residents safe, and technology to provide support via telehealth. Some volunteered to quarantine with residents who were ill. Through our weekly COVID survey and frequent meetings with members, we were able to shed light on the impact the pandemic was having on mental health housing, residents and staff. We learned the tragic fact that of those residents who contracted COVID, more than 45% required hospitalization and more than 15% died.
Then, after we made it through the of the worst of the pandemic, the state’s fiscal crisis led to 20% withholds to contracts that flow through counties and localities. Many of you were worried that you would be forced to decide whose rent stipend would be paid and whose would not. Evictions and homelessness were a real concern. With your help, we successfully advocated for the restoration of almost all of the housing-related withholds. And now, our efforts to secure adequate funding continue.
We know that you have been understaffed for years. The wages you are able to pay have not kept pace with inflation. Recruitment and retention of staff in these essential roles is increasingly difficult—and COVID has made the situation worse.
A recent survey of our members showed that for the week of October 11, 2020, there was a statewide combined staff vacancy and absence rate of nearly 25%. This means that we cannot fill one in every four shifts in programs that provide 24/7 coverage. In some parts of the state this rate is higher — such as the Hudson Region, which reported a staff unavailability rate of about 28%, and the Long Island Region, which reported a staff unavailability rate of about 32%. These percentages will likely only increase should the pandemic worsen over the fall and winter and could lead to programs having to close.
As we enter the 9th month of the pandemic, the horrific impact of understaffing is apparent. Staff who are covering extra shifts are exhausted. Morale is low. Tension is high. Clients are not as involved with day treatment programs, disturbing their routines and causing increased burden on staff. Clinical staff are having to participate in cleaning and sanitizing protocols, which means they have less time to spend with clients.
Residents’ routines are delayed because of the lack of staff continuity. Residents do not want to engage with staff they do not know. Residents often ask, “Who will be my counselor today?”
One member stated:
“It is difficult to provide quality services to our residents when dealing with staff vacancies. The workload for the existing staff becomes stressful and overwhelming when filling in for vacant positions. In addition, residents are being served by multiple relief staff, so it is difficult to build or retain a positive working rapport with individuals to affect positive long-term changes. As a result, residents become disheartened about their progress, or lack thereof, which affects their overall well-being and mental health.”
Another member stated:
“We are losing staff because the workload is difficult, and the environment can be stressful. This creates even more pressure on staff who remain, negatively impacting morale, attention to detail, and resident care. Residents are anxious and symptomatic, and they do not consistently have fully-present, engaged, and healthy (emotionally and physically) staff to provide service and support. We have lowered qualifications to attract more candidates, but that isn’t the answer. We need the best people providing services, not “the best we can get.”
In some ways, the inability to recruit and retain seems unbelievable in this environment, where so many are looking for jobs. The bottom line is that folks are looking for jobs, but not our jobs.
We asked members about the barriers to recruit and retain staff. By and large, the biggest problem is the low pay. Job seekers can find better pay at places like Starbucks, Wal-Mart and Panera. Taking our jobs would mean a cut in pay, and for many, what we can offer is not a living wage. Folks have to work more than one job. It’s not enough to justify paying for childcare.
But pay isn’t the only barrier. At the same time that the pay hasn’t kept pace with inflation, the job has gotten much more difficult. Compared to 30 years ago, your staff are working HARDER for LESS MONEY. Clients have increased needs—substance use, trauma, managing multiple medications and medical conditions. And now, current staff and job seekers fear that they could become ill with COVID and put both themselves and their family at risk.
In that context, it is no surprise that recruitment and retention continues to be a real concern. We are already experiencing burnout, low morale, and extreme fatigue, and we know continued staffing concerns could lead to programs closing. For these reasons adequate funding will continue to be the major focus of our efforts throughout the rest of this year and into 2021.
Also, as we move into 2021, we are focused on the value of ACL membership. We will continue to provide advocacy, timely educational programming and opportunities to share challenges and solutions with each other. And I am excited to announce some new member benefits and initiatives.
- Free Public Relations Guidance — our new PR firm, Overit, has generously offered five hours of free PR guidance each month, to be shared by our members. You may want help getting the word out about employment opportunities, a new housing development, or help navigating a sticky situation. We can connect you with our team at Overit, who can help.
- A new 15% discount for ACL members on all programs in the Corporation for Supportive Housing’s Training Center.
- New Member Forums — We saw throughout the pandemic that it was important to connect members, so they could share information on how to navigate these difficult times. We will soon be launching NEW member forums that will enable your team members with common responsibilities to get together, discuss challenges and help each other solve problems— forums to be included are those for HR directors, CFOs, and Program Supervisors
And stay tuned — we are continuing to explore new strategic partnerships and member benefits. Click here to view a current description of the benefits of ACL membership. If there is a benefit that we could explore that would help you do an even better job serving your clients, please let us know.
Thank you for all that you do each and every day to serve others.