Two Pilot Programs, Two Approaches to Supported Employment, Aired at RI DD Task Force Meeting

By Gina Macris

(This article (been corrected.)

Between January and mid-August, about one in four Rhode Islanders with developmental disabilities who were enrolled in a new supported employment program landed jobs, with help from private service agencies funded through the state Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD).

But there are signs of strain on the ability of these agencies to train the workers they need to continue to deliver results over the long haul.

 In the meantime, the Office of Rehabilitation Services (ORS) has started a much smaller pilot project , now in its second quarter of operation.

The two pilots take different approaches to funding employment-related supports for adults with developmental disabilities.

The DDD program adopts a fee-for service reimbursement model – based on the severity of a client’s disability - and a complicated billing mechanism that is similar to the one set up six years ago by the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH) for funding all developmental disability payments to private providers.

There is no provision for funding up front to support agencies’ costs for training workers to provide employment-related services.

The ORS project offers a flat rate of $7,000 per client, with $1750 up front so provider agencies can train and assemble a team of employment specialists. Providers are eligible for two additional quarterly payments of $1750 as long as they document the progress the clients are making.  A final payment  of  $1750 is awarded at the end of a year’s time only if the client has landed a job.

According to a recent report to a federal court monitor, state officials are evaluating both the ORS and DDD approaches to determine “what aspects of each model work for providers, what challenges exist, and how ongoing efforts of the two agencies can be coordinated.”

  Tracey Cunningham and Joseph Murphy

Tracey Cunningham and Joseph Murphy

Joseph Murphy, an administrator at ORS in the Department of Human Services, and Tracey Cunningham, Chief Employment Specialist in the developmental disabilities division at BHDDH, gave status reports on their respective programs at the monthly meeting of the Employment First Task Force Sept. 12.  

Cunningham said that between January and mid-August, the DDD program found jobs for 116 of a total of 425 adults with developmental disabilities who were enrolled. Nine others found jobs that didn’t work out, Cunningham said, and they are looking for better matches.

The program could take on an additional 92 clients, up to a maximum of 517, according to figures provided by Cunningham. However, service providers are having trouble lining up the trained staff to expand their rosters and want to focus instead on doing a good job with the clients they already have, Cunningham said.

Claire Rosenbaum, Adult Services Coordinator for the Sherlock Center on Disabilities at Rhode Island College, said one training course was cancelled recently for lack of enrollment. The Sherlock Center has a contract with the state to provide the needed training tuition-free.

In addition, the “self-directed” families, those who manage services independently for loved ones, are having a difficult time finding properly trained job developers and job coaches, Rosenbaum said. 

Cunningham said about 90 percent of “self-directed” families who seek supported employment services purchase them from private agencies.  But Rosenbaum said families are having difficulty identifying agencies able to help them.

Cunningham said three agencies are accepting clients from “self-directed” families:  Goodwill Industries, Work, Inc., and a new program called Kaleidoscope.

 Nicole Kovite Zeitler

Nicole Kovite Zeitler

Nicole Kovite Zeitler, a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice who monitors supported employment in conjunction with a 2014 consent decree enforcing the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), asked what was driving the providers’ inability to expand.

 Low salaries are the primary reason, said Donna Martin, executive director of the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island, a trade association representing about two thirds of the private agencies providing services in Rhode Island.

She said aging baby boomers also are creating an increased demand for direct care workers. Turnover is high – about 35 percent - and one in six jobs goes vacant in the developmental disability system, she said.

The General Assembly this year enacted the second consecutive raise for direct care workers. (Read related article here.)

But the increase, an estimated 42 cents an hour before taxes, is not expected to make a significant difference in the existing subsistence-level wages. Nor will it be any easier for developmental disability agencies to hire or keep new workers.

Meanwhile, the funding for the DDD supported employment program has been greatly under-utilized, even while the developmental disability service agencies have struggled to hire and train enough workers. (Read related article here.)                                 

The DDD program provides increased allowances for  job-seekers, based on the degree to which they lack independence,  but  most of the expenditures are set-aside for one-time performance bonuses to the agencies when:

  •  A job coach or job developer completes training
  •  A client gets hired
  •  A client remains employed for 90 days
  •  A client remains employed for 180 days.

Agencies receive $810 for each worker who has completed training. The remainder of the bonuses are arranged on a sliding scale, depending on the severity of the client’s disability, with the largest payments resulting from placement and retention milestones for those with the most complex needs.

Excluding any reimbursements for worker training, which were not part of the original design of the DDD program, the average maximum one-time reimbursement was initially projected to be $9,700 for young adults and $15,757 for older adults – those who left high school before 2013. Any updated figures were not immediately available.

The pilot operated by the state Office of Rehabilitation Services (ORS)  works with seven developmental disability service agencies to help a total of 49 clients find jobs. Five have had success so far, Joseph Murphy, program administrator, told task force members.

The ORS program, which receives technical assistance from Salve Regina University in Newport,  is now in the second quarter of the program year, while DDD program is in the third quarter. 

The ORS program considers a successful placement to be a minimum of ten hours a week in competitive, integrated employment in the community, although Murphy said Sept. 14 that it accepts clients no matter how many hours' work they seek. The ORS program offers a $1,000 bonus for job placements that exceed 20 hours a week and last at least six months. In the DDD program, a successful placement may involve fewer than 10 hours' work a week.

 Victoria Thomas

Victoria Thomas

The employment goal of the consent decree is an average of 20 hours a week of work at minimum wage or higher, although DOJ lawyer Victoria Thomas said there are no hourly employment requirements in the ADA.

“It just says people with developmental disabilities should have the option of integrated services,” she said.

The consent decree resulted from findings of the DOJ in 2014 that the state’s developmental disability services  over-relied on segregated sheltered workshops paying sub-minimum wages and non-work programs resembling day care.  As part of a system-wide overhaul, the state must support increasing numbers of adults with developmental disabilities in competitive employment in the community through Jan. 1, 2024.

The Employment First Task Force was created by the consent decree to serve as a bridge between state government and the community.

All photos by Anne Peters

This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that the up-front payment to providers in the ORS supported employment program is $1,750, one quarter of the total $7,000 allocation per client. In a clarification, Joseph Murphy, the program administrator, said it accepts clients no matter how many hours a week they seek competitive employment, even though a placement must be for at least ten hours a week to be considered successful for the purposes of the program.