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Minimum wage debate ignores crucial group [Commentary]

The current debate on the minimum wage rightfully focuses on the plight of low-income Marylanders. Hard-working citizens deserve a wage that allows them to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. However, there is a related issue that has gotten little attention in all of the discussion, and that is the fragile and underfunded system of services for Marylanders with developmental disabilities and the backbone of those services — the direct support staff who provide them.

Direct support staff help adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities live and work in communities. Their duties range from helping people with basic activities like grocery shopping, bathing and housekeeping, to supporting individual efforts to get and keep a job.

Using only state funds, service providers can afford to pay direct support staff workers an average of less than $10 per hour. If the Maryland minimum wage is increased, and the governor and the General Assembly do not provide a proportional increase in the reimbursement rate for direct support staff workers, then these critically important positions will become minimum wage jobs, and that would be a tragedy.

The reality of direct support jobs can be far more challenging than they appear on the surface. The workers risk injury from lifting someone or sometimes being hit during the course of doing their job. They have responsibilities to care for people who can have very complex medical issues. They work in small community-based settings with limited supervision and must be able to make good decisions on a daily basis.

Direct support staff are responsible for everything from making sure that someone with a developmental disability gets to work or an appointment on time, to holding someone's hand while they go through a difficult medical procedure, to making sure that they have someone to celebrate a holiday with.

Direct support staff work nights, weekends and holidays and often work significant amounts of overtime because of high turnover and poor staff retention. They are responsible for the health, safety and quality of life of the people they support. They must pass mandatory training courses, and if they assist with medication, they must be trained and maintain state certification.

One direct support professional, Charlene, has worked for almost 20 years with Tony who is in his mid 40s, has an intellectual disability and is blind. Tony attends a day program and lives with two roommates. His parents have both passed away, and Charlene plays an important role in his life, helping him get to medical appointments, go to the grocery store and live as independently as possible. As Tony ages, like all of us, his need for support will grow more intense, and he hopes that Charlene will continue to work with him. But Charlene struggles to support her own family on the wages she makes as a direct support staff worker, and she must work nights and weekends, forcing her to be away from her family.

Should she be compensated at a rate that's on par with the minimum wage? Absolutely not.

But community-based organizations that provide developmental disability services to people like Tony rely on the state of Maryland to provide funding. The state determines how much funding is available, including an amount for direct support wages. The state's current payment provides less than $10 per hour as a wage rate for direct support staff. This rate is an average that must pay not only for entry-level wages, but for staff who have managed to stay in their jobs for many years.

The governor has expressed support for increasing the state's minimum hourly wage to $10.10 by 2016 from the current $7.25, and the issue is likely to be among the most hotly debated during the 2014 legislative session. Yet there has been no mention of a correlated increase to direct support staff wages. With competition from employers such as big box retailers and fast food restaurants that offer less demanding jobs for similar pay, it would be impossible for community-based developmental disability organizations to recruit and retain quality direct support staff without a pay raise. An increase in Maryland's minimum wage simply must come with an equivalent increase in funding for developmental disability direct support professionals.

Direct support staff perform the challenging, rewarding, tiring, daily work of providing care and support to Marylanders with developmental disabilities. Their value is far greater than the minimum wage, and the risk of losing this support for people with developmental disabilities is too great to allow this to happen.

Laura Howell is executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Services. Her email is Lhowell@macsonline.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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