The Rockford Register Star did a really great story on how the state budget stalemate and chronic underfunding of disability services is impacting the families we serve and the staff we employ. You can read it here. But as a certain cartoon character once said, this budget situation really grinds my gears, so I wanted to dig in deeper to the statewide Direct Support Professional (DSP) staffing crisis.

Last night I worked a shift as a DSP. Do you know why I did it? Because I felt helpless. I don’t know what more to do to help our incredibly hard working staff. We’re struggling to fill 16 full-time DSP openings. Our DSPs and Team Leaders are working themselves to the bone to serve our clients. Our Leadership staff are regularly filling in as DSPs to help. We’ve done everything we can think of to make our agency a supportive, empowering, fun organization to work for. Don’t take my word for it, check out our reviews on Glassdoor. But it isn’t enough. At the end of the day, no matter how much you love serving the children and adults we work with, no matter how great the organizational culture is, people need to be able to take care of themselves and the people they love. That means they need a livable wage!

The average wage for community agency DSP’s is $9.35/hour, which translates into an annual salary of $19,448, which is below the poverty line for a family of three. In comparison, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics had the average hourly wage of a fast food worker at $9.08/hour in 2013. DSP’s are people who come to work every day to help some of the most vulnerable members of our society build lives of meaning and dignity. They often work variable schedules, picking up shifts on first, second, and third. They serve people with significant behavioral and daily care support needs. They do work that is incredibly taxing to both the body and sprit. Yet their work of building lives is on average only valued $0.27/hour more than building hamburgers. We pay above the state average and still struggle with turnover! To add insult to injury, DSPs working for private not-for profits like us make significantly less than their counterparts who work for the state operated developmental centers.

The lack of a living wage for DSP’s negatively impacts services for people with developmental disabilities in a multitude of ways. DSP turnover makes it extremely difficult to provide a sense of consistency and continuity for the people we serve. Imagine needing to rely on another person for your most intimate physical care needs. Now imagine that this person changes every few months. Imagine how this would impact your sense of security and privacy. The people we serve don’t have to imagine. This is their reality.

DSP turnover is a vicious circle. As turnover increases, the existing DSPs and management staff have to pick up more hours to fill the holes. More hours mean less time for staff to rest and maintain their personal lives. Stressed employees are more likely to seek less stressful employment. Stressed and exhausted employees are more likely to make mistakes such as medication errors. On the financial front, every dollar spent on overtime is a dollar not available to provide more services or to try and retain current DSPs.

Organizations serving people with disabilities last received a cost of living adjustment in 2008 for 2.8%. We have gone 8 years with no increase. Since 2002, we have received 3 cost of living increases totaling 9.5% for an average of 0.68% per year. At the same time the consumer price index has increased 32%! It is morally unacceptable to make the argument that in this sort of budgetary environment that everyone needs to take a cut.

The people we serve and that DSPs who serve them have been left out in the cold for the past decade. It’s time to do what’s right. It’s time that building lives is valued more than building burgers. So talk to your legislators. Write the Governor. Show them you value building lives over building burgers!

Yours in Service,

John Pingo