Long Island drug treatment facilities face staffing shortages

Long Island addiction treatment facilities are facing staffing shortages that have been made worse by the coronavirus pandemic and increased demand for mental health services, New State public health officials said. York and addiction experts in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Treatment centers faced a chronic shortage of social workers, addiction counselors, nurses and other staff long before COVID-19 hit in 2020, officials said. But the virus compounded the problem, as staff members began to leave in even greater numbers at the same time drug addiction and mental health issues began to rise on Long Island, experts said.

Officials and addiction experts said the exodus had many reasons: low wages, high caseloads, better job opportunities and job burnout made worse by COVID-19.

“A lot of people are tired,” said John Venza, vice president of residential services at Outreach New York, which operates treatment facilities in Long Island, Queens and Brooklyn. “They work in a life or death business, and there hasn’t been a break for years. Addiction counselors are heroes. They showed up for work while everyone else stayed home.


  • Drug treatment facilities on Long Island are facing staffing shortages made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Low wages, high workload numbers, better job opportunities and the burnout that has been made worse by COVID-19 are contributing to the problem.
  • Treatment centers offer bonuses, wage increases and more flexible hours to attract new workers.

State and Nassau and Suffolk officials said they were working with treatment providers to address shortages of social workers, counselors, nurses and others.

“Workforce challenges,” said Dr. Chinazo Cunningham, commissioner of the New York Office of Addiction Services and Supports (OASAS), “appear in every meeting we have with providers.”

If the staffing shortage continues, the region will continue to see an increase in fatal overdoses, said Steve Chassman, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (LICADD), a Westbury-based nonprofit that provides treatment and support for people. struggling with drug addiction.

Steven Chassman, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, in his Westbury office in June.
Credit: Morgan Campbell

“The chasm could become a canyon, and who falls through these service gaps and disparities? Our neighbors on Long Island, our fellow New Yorkers who need more spiritual, psychological and social help right now than ever before,” Chassman said.

Treatment struggles at the height of the pandemic

Fatal overdoses have increased dramatically as a result of the pandemic. More than 100,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in the first year of the pandemic, the first time that overdose deaths exceeded 100,000 in a 12-month period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the United States.

Overdose deaths jumped 34% in Nassau and 12% in Suffolk in 2020, statistics show. Megan Dwyer, director of the LICADD Employee Assistance Program which works with unions, school districts, hospitals and municipalities to connect their employees to mental health services, said requests for assistance have nearly tripled over the past the early years of the pandemic.

Healthcare providers are struggling to keep up with demand. A November 2021 study from the Rockefeller Institute of Government — a think tank that conducts research and analysis of issues facing New York State and the nation — said that 44% of center counseling staff of treatment is renewed every one to three years. “We’re continually filling positions,” Venza said, “and it’s no different than any other agency.”

New York state had about 42 drug treatment workers per 1,000 residents, according to the study, well below the 100:1,000 ratio the authors described as ideal. “The greatest need is for frontline workers: addiction counsellors, peer support specialists, nurses and nursing assistants,” the study says.

Local addiction facilities are feeling the pinch

The Family & Children’s Association, a Garden City-based organization with 340 employees that provides treatment and recovery support, is struggling to fill 25 positions, CEO and President Jeffrey Reynolds said. Some former staffers, he said, have been lured into telehealth companies that offer better pay and allow them to work from home. Others simply gave up.

“It’s becoming almost impossible to find people,” Reynolds said. “It’s demanding, hard work with meager pay, and I’m losing people – licensed social workers – who have decided to find something less stressful…”

The Seafield Center, which historically had about 350 employees, now has about 300, said Mark Epley, CEO of the Westhampton Beach-based organization.

Mark Emply, CEO of Seafield in Westhampton Beach, talks about...

Mark Emply, CEO of Seafield in Westhampton Beach, talks about staff shortages at the end of June.
Credit: James Carbone

“My goal, if someone calls and needs help, is to get them into treatment within 24 hours,” Epley said. “Due to lack of personnel, I cannot do it.”

The Rockefeller Institute study found that 93% of staff at state treatment centers said they entered the field to help others. Many of them are in recovery themselves or have loved ones who have struggled with addiction.

“It’s definitely a calling,” said Seafield staff member Justine Briscoe. “There’s no monetary value in watching someone walk through those doors and really work on themselves and start the healing process.”

Fifty-one percent of staff with master’s degrees and 88 percent of bachelor’s degree holders at New York City treatment centers earn $50,000 or less a year, according to the Rockefeller Institute report.

Many treatment center staff also have tens of thousands of dollars — or more — in student debt, an unavoidable expense in a field where a master’s degree is required for advancement. LICADD’s Dwyer says she could end up paying the government hundreds of dollars every month for the rest of her life because she chose to pursue higher education. “Why don’t we value mental health like we value professionals?” she asked.

Cari Besserman, director of mental health services for Suffolk, said there were mass retirements from the field in the early months of the pandemic because many workers did not want to get sick or infect their family. Those who hung on, she said, had to deal with burgeoning caseloads and frantic clients while meeting their own childcare needs, financial troubles, to their anxiety, loss and grief.

“Our staff told me, ‘I feel like my clients are drowning and they drag me down with them,'” Reynolds said.

Counselors and other staff who have worked with clients who have died during the pandemic — from COVID-19, opioid overdoses or other causes — have been particularly affected, said Anthony Rizzuto, director of vendor relations. of Seafield.

“I have to deal with the grief of losing one of my own patients,” Rizzuto said. “Then I had to deal with the family members, who sometimes will see me as the best thing on this Earth, and on the other end of that will see me as the blame. Then I have to deal with the feelings other members of the group who have established a relationship with this person.

How Suppliers Are Trying to Attract New Employees

Processing centers offer bonuses and pay raises when they can to attract new workers, administrators said. LICADD Director of Human Resources Dhamary Davidson-Smith said staff members are placing more emphasis on work-life balance, such as working from home when possible, greater work flexibility timetable and summer hours.

“We’re looking at things that won’t go over budget, but will satisfy our staff,” Davidson-Smith said.

Suffolk’s Besserman and Nassau substance abuse policy director Barry Wilansky said counties are working with treatment providers to address the staffing issue.

“It’s a complex question,” Wilansky said. “We have to pay people a living wage, but where do we get the money? Multiple aspects of the system need to be reviewed, and reimbursement of people is one of the issues”.

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s 2023 budget, Cunningham said, includes a 5.4% increase in the cost of living for drug treatment staff and other healthcare workers. An additional $2 billion has been earmarked for bonuses of up to $3,000 for full-time employees who remain on the job for a year and pro-rated bonuses for those who work fewer hours. The budget also includes up to $4 million for scholarships and scholarships for staff members pursuing graduate education and certification.

Further relief could come from the money makers and distributors of opioids – including well-known companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Walmart, CVS and Rite-Aid – agreed to pay after settling a sweeping lawsuit brought by Nassau, Suffolk and the State. New York has raised more than $1.5 billion from these companies, Attorney General Letitia James announced on June 16. An advisory board will determine how that money — mandated by state law to be spent on addiction prevention, treatment and recovery — will be used, Cunningham said.

Chassman said cynics might accuse social workers, nurses and other drug treatment staff of whining since they chose to enter a profession that traditionally offered low pay.

“But that doesn’t mean we chose to live at or below the poverty line,” he said. “We have chosen to dedicate our professional life to the service of others. I’m not saying we’re better or worse, but he’s a very unique individual, and in some ways our hearts are bigger than our heads.

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