Workers who care for those with disabilities haven't had raise in 7 years

News-DemocratApril 14, 2014 

Fast-food workers are not the only employees seeking better pay and a higher minimum wage.

In Illinois, direct support workers -- who provide daily care to those with developmental disabilities -- have not had a raise in seven years. Direct support workers provide care for 23,000 across the state and many of them earn minimum wage: $8.25 an hour.

According to the Illinois Association of Rehabilitation, on average, these employees earn $9.35 an hour. That is 21 percent below the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services poverty threshold of $11.32 an hour for a family of four.

New Lenox, Ill.-based Trinity Services Inc. staffs direct support employees in the metro-east has been lobbying the state for better pay. The business receives funding from various state agencies, including the Illinois Departments of Human Services, Public Aid, and Children and Family Services. The state determines the rate these workers are compensated, but that has not been adjusted since 2007. Illinois ranks 41st among the 50 states in the amount these workers are paid.

Trinity Services Chief Executive Officer Art Dykstra said more than 18,000 of these workers across the state, more than 90 percent, are employed in 501(c)3 organizations. A vast majority of these businesses are nonprofit.

A worker with as much as 15 years tenure earn around $12 an hour, Dykstra said. But most of these employees have a second job and rely on overtime to make ends meet.

"We're just burning them out," Dykstra said. "And I just worry along with my colleagues about what's been happening. So we said we have to get them in a better place in their lives. So we've been talking to folks as well as legislators."

The minimum wage debate that has been waged across the country has met opposition from the small business sector and the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. State chamber president Doug Whitley has argued that Illinois already has one of the highest minimum wages in the country. He said government-mandated wage increases only hurt smaller businesses and that wages should be determined by employers.

However, Whitley said these business that employ direct support workers are already being supported by the state, which should have the right to establish wage rates.

"If the state pays them, then it would seem the state could dictate what rate it pays and what it should be," Whitley said.

A bill introduced last fall in the Illinois Senate calls for the state to gradually increase the pay for these workers to no less than $13 an hour by July 1, 2016.

Dykstra said he is pleased that Gov. Pat Quinn has proposed $30 million in the state budget for wage increases for these employees. Dykstra also supports The Care Campaign, an initiative launched a year ago in Illinois and five other states to push for higher wages for direct support workers.

"We've done all of the things that you would imagine in terms of contacting legislators, talking to people here and there," Dykstra said. "So we're going to see what happens because we think that will grow."

Lois Bahr has been providing care for Trinity Services' clients since July 2011. The Lebanon resident said her job requires training and classes for first aid and CPR.

"It's not something that you just do," Bahr said. "You just don't come in and do it when you start working. You have to go through these classes and training so you know what to do. You don't just walk in and do it."

Bahr also said increasing her and her co-workers' pay would also help attract and retain better employees.

Trinity employee Erin Hesker, of Mascoutah, agrees. She said she joined Trinity's staff after realizing she wanted to help others like she has cared for her visually-impaired son. She said considering all of the training and her experience, she does not think her job is not a minimum-wage one.

"I've been working this job for two and a half years and I also have two small children that I support completely on my own," Hesker said. "I work multiple hours and I try to work overtime every pay period just to make ends meet to make sure we're staying off welfare, so that it's able to go to those who need it."

Dykstra argues that the demand for direct support workers will continue to increase as more of the U.S. population ages and lives longer.

"The growth industry in the future is going to be personal care workers," he said. "If you look at our population, everybody is now about the business of providing the services in the home so family members don't have to go to a nursing home. ...Many people are going to be recruited to work in that. I would venture to guess that it's one of, if not the top fastest growing, employment sectors in the country."

Contact reporter Will Buss at wbuss@bnd.com or 618-239-2526.

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