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NEWS – Union pushes for community caregiver’s wage increase

By Lauren Leone-Cross
Posted May 15, 2013 @ 06:35 PM

As the developmentally disabled are moved from state institutions to community-based care, the largest state employee union urged lawmakers Wednesday to approve more money for caregivers’ wages.

Gov. Pat Quinn’s initiative to transition individuals from state institutions like the now-shuttered Jacksonville Developmental Center to community-based care puts a much-needed spotlight on the low wages earned by the workers now taking care of these individuals, said Janet Stover, president of the Illinois Association of Rehabilitation Facilities.

Senate Bill 1368 calls for a $1-per-hour wage rate increase for community-based caregivers. Their starting wages average $9.35 per hour — 21 percent below the federal poverty level of $11.32 for a family of four, according to a survey conducted by the association, and the last time lawmakers approved a starting wage increase for these workers was in 2007.

“It’s a job that doesn’t pay what it should,” said Stover, who was joined by parents of the developmentally disabled, caregivers and mental health advocates during a hearing Wednesday in the Senate Human Services Committee.

The starting salary for caregivers in Illinois state institutions is about $35,000 per year, which works out to about $17 per hour, said Anders Lindall, spokesman for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31.

The increase in wages would cost $68.2 million, according to estimates from the Department of Human Services. The money would be federally matched through Medicaid.

Wednesday’s  lobbying effort led by AFSCME comes as the House Appropriations Human Services Committee is looking to cut $770 million from Quinn’s proposed fiscal 2014 budget for the departments of Human Services, Children and Family Services, Veterans Affairs and Aging.

Sponsoring Sen. Toi Hutchison, D-Chicago, pressed lawmakers to look into the matter despite the state’s poor fiscal condition.

“We understand the historic fiscal crisis that we’re in, but we need to get the issue out into the universe when we’re talking about who’s doing this work and how much they’re getting paid,” Hutchison said.

The goal is to raise starting wages to $13 per hour by 2015, said Art Dykstra, president and executive director of Trinity Services Inc., a nonprofit that serves children and adults with developmental disabilities.

John Porter, 72, of Springfield testified on behalf of his son with developmental disabilities now living in a community-based group home in Springfield. John Porter Jr., 43, lived five years as a resident of the now-shuttered Howe Developmental Center in Tinley Park.

The elder Porter said low starting wages and a demanding work environment often go hand in hand with high turnover rates.

“My son likes to have the same staff there all the time. He knows their names, but weeks later, they’re gone,” Porter said. “He needs structure. The staff keep quitting, so they have to keep replacing them.”

Stover said turnover rates, which add to recruitment and training costs, hover around 50 percent in many areas of the state.

She said there are roughly 30,000 direct-support workers in Illinois, including those who work at Hope Institute for Children and Families in Springfield. Hope Institute often experiences high turnover rates because of the low wages, said Yolanda Woods, who’s worked at the Springfield-based institution for 17 years.

Woods, who’s also president of ASCFME Local 2481, said most of the employees she supervises start out at the “bottom of the totem pole.”

“These people can go to Wal-Mart or McDonald’s and make about the same amount of money, and that’s kind of crazy,” Woods said. “We have a high turnover rate, so we have training classes every three weeks. Six months later and you’ll be lucky to have three of four of those people still there… It’s just a revolving door.”

As an education specialist at Hope Institute, Shatriya Smith, of Springfield said she’s frustrated with what she believes to be lawmakers’ inability to “do their job.”

“Their jobs are not getting done, but they’re getting a more-than-median income while getting per diems each day they’re in session, which adds up to more than what a first-year employee at Hope makes in an entire week,” Smith said, referring to Illinois lawmakers’ $67,836 annual salary and daily per diems they can receive on session days that can tack on thousands to their income.

“I love working here at Hope,” she added. “If I didn’t have to pay a mortgage, I would work there for free. I have to pay for gas, insurance,and other needs. It gets really ridiculous when every other pay period you have to find out where extra money is coming from to meet your needs.”

Lauren Leone-Cross can be reached at 782-6292.