Illinois Caregivers Press Governor Quinn for a Living Wage

Matthew Blake

On February 4, disability advocates and service providers gathered at the Illinois capitol building to ask Gov. Pat Quinn (D) to increase caregiver wages. (Josh Catalano, courtesy of Illinois Association of Rehabilitation Facilities)

For the last 12 years, Tres­sa Wil­son of Rock­ford, Ill. has worked full-time at a group home run by the non­prof­it Mile­stone, Inc., car­ing for clients who have been diag­nosed with intel­lec­tu­al dis­abil­i­ties, autism, epilep­sy or cere­bral palsy.

Wil­son, 35, says that while she feels con­fi­dent at her job and believes she is help­ing her clients, the work can some­times be tough. 

A lot of peo­ple I work with are non-ver­bal,” Wil­son says. Some­times you can’t tell what they want.” 

Wil­son says that because of com­mu­ni­ca­tion dif­fi­cul­ties like these, her clients can become frus­trat­ed and occa­sion­al­ly phys­i­cal­ly com­bat­ive. Anoth­er chal­lenge is that despite the inten­sive nature of her duties, which include dress­ing clients and coor­di­nat­ing out­ings, Wil­son makes just $10.51 an hour — not near­ly enough, she says, to sup­port her­self and her four children. 

Along with the oth­er care assis­tants at Mile­stone, Wil­son recent­ly decid­ed to join AFSCME Coun­cil 31, which rep­re­sents about 5,000 care­givers for devel­op­men­tal­ly dis­abled peo­ple at com­mu­ni­ty agen­cies through­out Illi­nois. On Tues­day, the Mile­stone work­ers trav­eled with oth­er Coun­cil 31 mem­bers to the Illi­nois capi­tol build­ing to present Gov. Pat Quinn’s office with more than 10,000 signed post­cards demand­ing a $13-an-hour liv­ing wage for caregivers.

Wil­son and her col­leagues went to Spring­field as part of the Care Cam­paign,” a coali­tion of work­ers, CEOs of care cen­ters, state law­mak­ers and dis­abil­i­ty advo­cates that formed in ear­ly 2013. Tuesday’s event, which gath­ered dozens of sup­port­ers, was the coalition’s biggest mobi­liza­tion to date.

At the behest of the Care Cam­paign, State Sen­a­tor Heather Steans (D) and Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Robyn Gabel (D) intro­duced leg­is­la­tion in Octo­ber call­ing for Illi­nois to raise the wage of direct sup­port work­ers. Accord­ing to the trade group Illi­nois Asso­ci­a­tion of Reha­bil­i­ta­tion Facil­i­ties (IARF), care­givers for devel­op­men­tal­ly dis­abled peo­ple cur­rent­ly earn an aver­age of $9.35 an hour. Steans’ and Gabel’s bills would boost that to $13 by July 2016.

So far, how­ev­er, the bills have remained stalled in their respec­tive com­mit­tees. And although Quinn has been pub­licly focused on help­ing low-wage work­ers across the board by rais­ing the state’s min­i­mum wage to at least” $10 an hour, he has yet to take a posi­tion on this legislation.

Care cam­paign mem­bers say they cer­tain­ly want to see the state’s min­i­mum wage increase. But they also con­tend that the spe­cif­ic plight of care­givers has reached a tip­ping point, thanks to years of insuf­fi­cient sup­port from state government. 

Art Dyk­stra, a spokesper­son for the Care Cam­paign and exec­u­tive direc­tor of Trin­i­ty Ser­vices, which oper­ates more than 80 com­mu­ni­ty care facil­i­ties through­out Illi­nois, says that the governor’s office was very hos­pitable and sym­pa­thet­ic” when he pre­sent­ed the group’s postcards. 

But Dyk­stra adds that Quinn has been his­tor­i­cal­ly non­com­mit­tal about rais­ing wages for care­givers. “[Rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the governor’s office] just say right now that the state is hav­ing eco­nom­ic prob­lems … [but] they have said this for years,” Dyk­stra says. Mes­sages left with the governor’s office Tues­day were not returned.

Most dis­abil­i­ty care cen­ters in Illi­nois rely almost entire­ly on state mon­ey to func­tion — leav­ing them in a par­tic­u­lar­ly vul­ner­a­ble posi­tion when elect­ed lead­ers opt to reduce social ser­vice spend­ing. Advo­cates hope that when Gov. Pat Quinn intro­duces his annu­al bud­get in March, which the state leg­is­la­ture will review this spring, he will opt to increase cen­ters’ funding.

Unlike oth­er busi­ness­es, these com­mu­ni­ty providers can­not raise their prices, reduce their ser­vice hours or make oth­er eco­nom­ic deci­sions about resources,” notes Janet Stover, pres­i­dent and CEO of IARF. They pro­vide these ser­vices with­in the con­fines of their agree­ments with the state.” 

Dyk­stra, who has served as head of the New Lenox, Ill.-headquartered Trin­i­ty Ser­vices for 27 years, recalls, There was a peri­od of time where we would get rate increas­es every oth­er year.” 

Since 2007, though, the state’s allo­cat­ed mon­ey for care ser­vice providers hasn’t been adjust­ed for infla­tion. In fact, dur­ing the past decade, fund­ing has only increased a total of 9.5 per­cent. Mean­while, as Dyk­stra points out, the con­sumer price index has shot up 23 per­cent over the same time span.

This stag­na­tion came amid a flood of oth­er bud­get cuts trig­gered by the Great Reces­sion and state-spe­cif­ic crises. Dis­abil­i­ty advo­cates main­tain, how­ev­er, that care­givers and oth­er pub­lic ser­vants should not be forced to bear the brunt of the bud­get cri­sis. Because of these work­ers’ insuf­fi­cient pay, sup­port­ers say, many of them go on pub­lic aid, there­by cost­ing the state mon­ey. And the low wages can also lead to high employ­ee turnover — a major prob­lem in a pro­fes­sion where devel­op­ing per­son­al rela­tion­ships with clients is vital.

Tony Paulaus­ki, exec­u­tive direc­tor for the advo­ca­cy group Arc of Illi­nois, says that Quinn has made some impres­sive moves to expand com­mu­ni­ty care for devel­op­men­tal­ly dis­abled peo­ple — such as remov­ing more than 3,000 peo­ple in the last two years off a state wait­ing list to receive pub­licly assist­ed care.

But Paulas­ki says that Quinn’s work on behalf of devel­op­men­tal­ly dis­abled Illi­nois res­i­dents means that the gov­er­nor must, in turn, do more to sup­port their care providers. There is going to be grow­ing demand,” Paulas­ki says. This is about qual­i­ty of life issues for peo­ple who need these care supports.” 

AFSCME is a spon­sor of In These Times.

Matthew Blake is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in Chica­go. He has writ­ten for the Chica­go Jour­nal, Wash­ing­ton Month­ly, Wash­ing­ton Inde­pen­dent and The Nation, among oth­er publications.
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