By Stephen Dravis
06:24AM / Saturday, April 18, 2020
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier speaks at BC Arc's annual breakfast in 2018; President and CEO Kenneth Singer is at right.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — For the most vulnerable members of our community, day-to-day life can be filled with challenges, even in the best of times.
The frightening times we all are confronting can be even harder on those sometimes marginalized populations.
"It"s a total disruption of their lives," said Kenneth Singer, the CEO of Berkshire County Arc. "For some of them, it's very difficult to understand why their routine is stopped. Families cannot visit. We can't go to the movies and the restaurant, all the things that we usually do.
"It's extra challenging for people who are isolated and have to stay in their rooms."
For 66 years, BCArc has been serving the needs of individuals with developmental disabilities, brain injuries and autism in Berkshire and Hampden Counties.
Many of those individuals live in one of 42 group homes operated by the non-profit agency, some of which already have been touched directly by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I think we were the first ones in the state to have positive [tests]," Singer said. "The Berkshires got hit pretty hard. We had positives before a lot of our colleagues on the other side of the state."
The good news, if there is any, is that at one point, eight or nine BC Arc group homes were quarantined, and that number is now down to four.
"It's good that it's down to four," Singer said. "That means the Board of Health has taken them off quarantine."
There are four BC Arc residential clients at the moment who are positive for the novel coronavirus, he said, and three of them are in the hospital. The others who were previously diagnosed have recovered from the disease.
Singer credited BC Arc's 800 staff members with helping to keep residents safe and continuing to serve the agency's residential and non-residential clients.
The county's other non-profit devoted to people with disabilities and their families, North Adams-based BFAIR, declined a request for an interview for this story.
Forty-five percent of the population served by BC Arc lives at home, often with immediate family members. All of the organization's day programs, which teach life skills and find job placement for clients at businesses
like Zip 'N Sort Mail Services, were shut down in the wake of the pandemic.
But those day programs have been reworked and re-implemented for the era of social distancing, Singer said. That means programs conducted in the group homes instead of central locations and video-conference programs for individuals living in family homes.
One of the key supports for families is BC Arc's respite services, "intended to provide a break for family members while at the same time enhancing community opportunities for their family member with a disability," according to the agency's website.
With Massachusetts residents under a "stay-at-home" advisory, true respite for family caregivers is hard to come by. But Singer said BC Arc staff is doing what it can to keep supporting those families.
"Our family support is very active," he said. "We have two family-support centers, one in Central Berkshire and one in Southern Berkshire. Our clinical staff is calling as necessary to give them advice on how to deal with loved ones and trying to give them activities to entertain them at home. But sure, it puts a lot of stress on them as well.
"This whole crisis puts stress on everyone, but certainly, for the people we serve, it's difficult."
It also has caused stress for BC Arc employees, some of whom have tested positive for COVID-19, and the agency is actively seeking more personnel to help carry the load.
"We're always hiring, but we are pressing that now," Singer said, referring to a pop-up message currently running on the agency's website. "We really need 'em. We're definitely hiring, and we have expedited our hiring system and training system. A lot of it is now online. People can do [the training] on their computers.
"But overall, we're doing well. Our staff is dedicated and taking care of our folks."
It did not help morale this week when BC Arc employees read that the commonwealth Sunday reached a deal to give "hazard pay" to health-care workers at state-owned facilities.
"They left us out in the cold," Singer said. "None of the private agencies, the whole non-profit sector that contracts and does the majority of the work are getting consideration."
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, agreed.
"Nobody thinks it's a bad idea to pay anybody more for working on the front lines," she said. "We want to be able to do this. It's just troubling that there is such a disparity and we're leaving some workers behind."
Farley-Bouvier said "provider homes," run by organizations like BC Arc, are state contractors. And the employees in the privately-operated homes are traditionally paid less than their counterparts in state facilities. Now, there's another reason why the non-profit might be at a disadvantage in trying to attract workers.
"Often, people leave a Berkshire County Arc home and go to a state-run home because they can be paid more," Farley-Bouvier said. "These are low-paid workers, so if you can get another dollar or two an hour, that's a big deal.
"It's pretty ironic when we talk about ‘essential workers" how many of these essential workers are our lowest paid workers. It just shines a light on what we value."
Singer said he is talking to Farley-Bouvier and other members of the Berkshire County legislative delegation to see what can be done to rectify that situation. In the meantime, he is doing what he can to have his employees' backs and appreciates the sacrifices they are making.
"We have maintained them somehow," Singer said. "We're paying a lot of overtime. We've put incentive programs in for our staff that we're not getting reimbursed for from the state. … Yesterday, I was on a Zoom call with 90 supervisors — encouraging them, hearing from them, getting their input on what we can do to help and be more supportive.
"It's been a huge, absolutely huge undertaking, a total change in how we do business. But our staff has been phenomenal in stepping up to the plate.
"They care about the people we serve, but it's challenging."
This story was updated Saturday afternoon to reflect that while many BCArc programs are shut down, the Zip 'N Sort Mail Services remains operational.