With Connecticut wheelchair users reporting lengthy wait times to get their chairs fixed, advocates argued Thursday with industry representatives over whether hiring additional technicians and dedicating more staff toward home visits would help resolve a backlog of repairs.
The Wheelchair Repair Task Force, which includes both advocates for people with disabilities and representatives of the wheelchair supply industry, met Thursday to work on drafting recommendations aimed at improving repair wait times for wheelchair users.
The state legislature created the group in an effort to resolve grievances by many residents who rely on wheelchairs but say their vendors often take weeks or months to repair the wheelchairs and pressure customers to travel to in-shop appointments rather than dispatch a technician for a home visit.
“The solution would be more techs on the road and fewer in the shop,” Rick Famiglietti, a member of the group and program manager for the Center for Disability Rights, said. “Eighty percent of the people are getting repairs at home because they can’t get there [in person]. We’re talking about supply and demand.”
Representatives of the industry, which is largely controlled by two companies –National Seating and Mobility (NSM) and Numotion — argue that the issue is more complicated than it appears. In-shop appointments allow for quicker turnaround and are preferable to some clients, they said.
Meanwhile, they said recruiting more technicians is both costly and difficult given current workforce shortages.
“If we added more techs, we add more vehicles, that’s more fuel costs, that’s more other costs that we can’t bear,” Gary Gilberti, an executive vice president for Numotion, said.
The companies acknowledge the backlogs and delays in completing repairs. On Thursday, Wayne Grau, executive director of the National Coalition for Assistive and Rehab Technology, said that Numotion had 740 outstanding orders while NSM had 687. On average, the companies receive between 70 and 85 new orders per month, he said.
Between the two companies, there are 28 field technicians in Connecticut as well as other remote techs covering the eastern half of the country, according to information provided to the group.
Although Gilberti suggested at an earlier meeting that Numotion believed it had sufficient staff, industry representatives also pointed to difficulties retaining staff. Despite efforts to increase employee compensation, Grau said the average attrition rate was about 35% and more than half of working techs had less than two years on the job.
Joe Shortt, an advocate with Independence Northwest, suggested some of the problem was likely technician burnout related to short staffing.
“If there were more techs, I feel like they wouldn’t be overworked as much and you’d have a higher retention rate. That’s just my opinion,” Shortt said. “Most jobs I’ve ever been in — that I’ve ever wanted to quit — you’re extremely overworked, you’re stressed out. It seems never-ending.
Gilberti said the low retention rate was more likely related to workforce changes in the wake of the pandemic.
“COVID changed things a lot. People’s willingness to do certain jobs changed,” Gilberti said. “The work environment in general, not just our business, is difficult.”
Rep. Frank Smith, D-Milford, asked how many technicians the companies would need to hire in order to improve repair turnarounds to put them within an agreeable timeframe.
“If it’s not affordable, that’s a business comment, that’s a profit-loss comment… but we all know, in the perfect world where you can hire as many people as you want, there is a number to drop this service duration to something more reasonable,” Smith said.
Grau declined to speculate.
“We’re going to continue to work on that, Representative Smith,” he said, calling the issue “complex.” “I don’t in any way want to provide a number and then have it not be accurate.”
The group will meet again after the Thanksgiving holiday on Nov. 30, when members will begin to decide what recommendations will be included in its report to the legislature.