Recognizing Your DSPs During COVID-19

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been quick to recognize the contributions of our healthcare and essential workers—doctors, nurses, grocery store clerks—and rightfully so. These professions are keeping our nation afloat during one of the most devastating public health crises of our lifetime. However, direct support professionals (DSPs) have often been overlooked when we think of who deserves recognition during COVID-19.

The week of September 13 – 19, 2020 is DSP Recognition Week, where IDD providers across the nation take the time to highlight the dedication of this critical workforce. This year has been harder than most— DSPs are essential workers and have been dealing with the effects of COVID-19 not only with persons served, but also at home in their own families and communities. This year, more than ever, DSPs deserve recognition and support.

The Challenges of Being a DSP During COVID-19

The DSP workforce faced several challenges prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a national turnover rate of 50% and vacancy rates near 15% for full-time DSPs. The profession remains one of the lowest-paying occupations for the range of skills and competencies required, with a national average of $13.63 per hour. This is due to underfunded Medicaid reimbursement rates, limited access to benefits, and a general lack of respect toward this workforce.

Now with the pandemic, more challenges have arisen. A survey of the direct support workforce conducted by the National Association of Direct Support Professionals (NADSP) and the University of Minnesota found a range of difficulties facing DSPs during COVID-19:

  • 34% of DSPs reported working more hours since the beginning of the pandemic.
  • Only 24% of DSPs reported receiving extra pay for COVID-19 risks.
  • 42% of DSPs knew someone in the workforce who left their job due to the pandemic.
  • Only 10% of employers provided COVID-19 testing.
  • 53% of DSPs had access to homemade masks, while 46% had access to medical-grade masks.
  • Many DSPs reported having access to “other” types of personal protective equipment (PPE), including bandanas for masks and garbage bags for gowns.

Additionally, some shelter-at-home orders have put DSPs in situations where they may work longer hours with less access to childcare. With school closures, some DSPs are providing round-the-clock care for their children in addition to working. Others are having to balance working in a profession that requires close personal contact with others, while fearing bringing the virus home to older family members or those with underlying medical conditions.

The lack of appropriate PPE, longer hours, low wages, and lack of resources for child and elder care leave many DSPs more burned out than ever before. These challenges can also create situations where DSPs may experience secondary trauma or compassion fatigue as a result of their work.

How Can You Show Appreciation for DSPs?

Given the incredible amount of stress placed upon DSPs right now, how can IDD providers best support and show appreciation for DSPs during this time? Thankfully, there are a multitude of ways to adequately show appreciation to your DSPs while also supporting them as professionals and advocating on their behalf.

1. Show Appreciation Through DSP Recognition Programs

In a 2019 Relias-conducted survey of DSPs, 45% of DSPs said showing appreciation for their work and experience is an important thing their employer could do to make them stay on the job. Establishing DSP recognition programs that all staff can participate in is an easy way to show appreciation and boost morale during this difficult time. Even small acts of appreciation, such as a note or a small gift card, are an effective way to show gratitude toward DSPs.

2. Offer Excellent Onboarding and Professional Development Training

While the current high unemployment rates may drive more individuals to work in direct support, the majority will be unprepared for the skills and competencies required to be effective on the job. 27% of DSPs who were new hires during the pandemic reported not getting typical orientation and training, and only 66% of providers offered more training on health and safety precautions. Robust training that goes beyond compliance requirements is more essential now than ever, especially as research continues to show that ongoing staff development improves the health and safety of persons served.

Continuing professional development for DSPs is also a critical factor in helping retain talented staff and increasing confidence in the role. The same Relias survey of DSPs found that half of DSPs would like more training on the conditions of the people they support, positive behavior supports, and how to address problematic behavior effectively.

3. Create a Culture of Respect

45% of DSPs who responded to the 2019 Relias DSP survey stated that one of the most important things their employer could do to make them stay for five more years would be to “show more respect for my experience.” DSPs are an invaluable resource for information and ideas on programs, organizational policies, and the needs of persons served. Creating a culture of respect involves giving DSPs a chance to have their voices heard.

One way to cultivate this culture of respect is to ensure there are ways for DSPs to provide feedback to organizational leadership and have their concerns or suggestions taken seriously. Create methods for DSPs to confidentially provide feedback and have that feedback carried up through the organization and out into the community, even to local and state policymakers. A join initiative of the NADSP, ANCOR, and University of Minnesota have created a campaign to allow DSPs to share their stories of working through the COVID-19 pandemic. Encourage your DSPs to utilize this resource so that their voices are carried outside of the organization and into the community.

4. Hire the Right People

Many committed DSPs leave the profession due to frustration caused by coworkers who do not provide the same quality of care. High turnover rates and staff vacancies can tempt IDD providers into hiring quickly to fill gaps in services; however, the cost of a poor hire far outweigh the benefits. Hiring individuals who encompass the critical core competencies of a great DSP—compassion, empathy, reliability, and good judgment—can prevent frustration among your talented staff, as well as prevent high turnover due to poor hiring practices. Pre- and post-hire assessments are one example of ensuring that the DSPs who are hired have the critical core competencies required, while also gauging skills, competencies, and knowledge gaps.

5. Train Front-Line Supervisors and Leadership Teams

44% of DSPs say their direct supervisor is not supportive of them, and that this factor is making them plan to leave their job. In order for DSPs to feel appreciated not just during DSP week, but all year, they need supervisors who are supportive, appreciative, and hold everyone on the team accountable for doing quality work.

These skills require training. A great DSP may still need mentoring and guidance to become a great DSP supervisor. Giving front-line supervisors education on effective communication, leadership, constructive feedback, and conflict resolution is essential to your organization’s DSP appreciation strategy.

Advocacy and Resources for IDD Organizations

In addition to these strategies for DSP recognition, providers must make it a priority to advocate for their DSPs on local, state, and national platforms. Leaders at IDD organizations can advocate on a state and local level for increased overtime and hazard pay for DSPs and other essential workers, increased Medicaid reimbursement rates, and access to emergency childcare and eldercare subsidies. Most importantly, organizations need to prioritize providing appropriate resources to protect the health and safety of DSPs from COVID-19, including adequate supplies of appropriate PPE and access to COVID-19 testing (whether free or covered by company health insurance).

Several organizations have free resources available for IDD organizations to help them support their DSPs during the pandemic:

DSPs are a lifeline for individuals with disabilities, and they deserve the utmost respect for their commitment to supporting independence and a self-directed life for persons served. They also deserve to have their leadership advocate on behalf of their profession, to have their voices heard, and their needs met during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Content Marketing Manager, Relias

Nellie Galindo, MSW, MSPH, received her Master of Social Work and Master of Science in Public Health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has worked with individuals with disabilities in several different settings, including working as a direct service provider for individuals with mental illness and leading a youth program for young adults with disabilities. She has facilitated and created trainings for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the areas of self-advocacy, healthy relationships, sexual health education, and violence and abuse prevention. Mrs. Galindo has worked in state government helping individuals with disabilities obtain accessible health information in their communities, as well as utilizing the Americans with Disabilities Act to ensure equal access to healthcare services.

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