Support staff must undergo rigorous training and background checks, explained Durkin, who is board president of the community services association. The staff are responsible for everything from giving medications to arranging social activities to tending to physical needs, such as bathing.

Hours can be long and stressful, Durkin said, and ARC struggles with high staff turnover. While the job demands can lead to burnout, pay is also an issue, she said, noting that about 40 percent of the staff work another job. "We've had people say, 'I really love it, it's really rewarding but I cannot do it for this amount of money,' " she said.

"We have been on the back burner too long, and it's time to be recognized," said Lawrence Jenkins Jr., a community living counselor who lives with and looks after three men in their 60s in an East Baltimore home owned by ARC. From 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. five days a week, he said he transports his charges to medical and dental appointments, handles grocery shopping and housekeeping.

"Every day is different, but every day is busy," Jenkins said. "There's no such thing as sitting back."

Middleton said he'd compromise by setting a "floor" on disability workers' pay so that they would earn 35 percent more than the minimum wage.

Warren G. Deschenaux, the General Assembly's chief fiscal analyst, said state analysts were still working to calculate how much the proposal would cost. Middleton acknowledged it would be "significant."

Howell, spokeswoman for the community services providers, said keeping disability workers' pay at 35 percent above minimum wage would be "a very important safety net."

"We can't afford to lose more ground," she said.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

ecox@baltsun.com