Op-Ed

A living wage for Rhode Island human services workers

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A bright young man, with many friends and an active social life, worked as a carpenter in his early 20s when he began experiencing the onset of Leukodystrophy, a rare genetic disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. As the disease progressed, the man lost full motor control and was unable to walk or feed himself. Resigned to a wheelchair and requiring assistance with activities of daily care, he and his family turned to Seven
Hills Rhode Island (SHRI) for 24-hour support.
Today, this young man depends upon the professional skill, compassion, and judgment of an array of caregivers. Most important to his daily care, however, are the direct support professionals (DSPs), who comprise the majority of the human services workforce in Rhode Island. DSPs support the most vulnerable people in this state - those who struggle daily to live a life of dignity and purpose. DSPs work in group homes and other day program sites to assist individuals with disabilities with basic personal care, skill development, and access to their communities.
Now, the hope of finding that life of dignity and purpose is being challenged.
The state is facing a crisis in sustaining its level of Health and Human Services as a result of staffing shortages for many critical reasons.
According to the US Census Bureau, Rhode Island’s population is aging on a trend mirroring most of its neighboring states. During the five-year period from April 2010 to April 2015, Rhode Island citizens over the age of 65 increased from 14.4 percent of the population to 16.1 percent, while those 18 and under decreased from 21.3 percent to 20 percent.
The impact of this information to the human services sector is multiple: The increase in current and prospective health and human services worker retirements coincides with the increase in demand for care as they continue to age. However, the decrease in younger population compounds the growing caregiver void. Rhode Island is at the forefront of a supply-demand calamity. The crisis becomes even more daunting when factoring in clinical needs, regulatory demands of state oversight agencies, and the woefully inadequate compensation provided to DSPs through rates and reimbursements set by the state.
Last year, the governor and state legislators appropriated an additional $2.5 million in the FY17 State Budget that, along with a $2.4 million Federal Medicaid match, allowed the pay of DSPs to increase from $10.82/hour to the current $11.18. This helps, but we need to pursue an adequate living wage for these undervalued human services employees.
In this current legislative session, Resolutions have been filed in both the House of Representatives and the State Senate urging BHDDH and EOHHS to increase wages for direct support and home care workers to eventually $15 per hour. Senators DiPalma, DaPonte, McCaffrey, Conley, and Gallo have sponsored the Joint Resolution in the Senate, and Representatives Tanzi, Shanley, Maldonado, Giarrusso, and Barros have sponsored the House Resolution. Hopefully, these two Resolutions will become enacted in the budget and when they are, I would strongly hope that all members of the
House and Senate support these necessary increases.
According to MIT’s Living Wage Calculation chart for Rhode Island, an adult with two children should earn a minimum of $29.60 per hour to adequately support their family. In contrast, DSPs-many of them single mothers with children-are paid $11.18 per hour, requiring the very people who care for our most dependent adults and children in Rhode Island, to live on wages that are not considered livable. It would seem logical that those who care for those least able to thrive in society should be extended a wage on which they can thrive themselves.
We are all one diagnosis, accident, fall, or a myriad of other circumstances away from needing competent, qualified care for a loved one or ourselves. If that day comes, we would have to ask: Whom do I want providing the care-someone who is working three jobs just to make their rent, or a focused professional dedicated solely to prioritizing my care?
It is time we look at the fundamental fairness of what the most vulnerable members of Rhode Island-and their caregivers-need to thrive in our society.
We must devise a funding formula that generates the resources to ensure that the highest quality of care is delivered through the hands and compassionate hearts of dedicated and respected health and human services direct support professionals.

David A. Jordan, a native of Newport, RI, is currently the president of Seven Hills Foundation, a health and human services organization with affiliates in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island, including Seven Hills Rhode Island. Headquartered in Woonsocket, Seven Hills Rhode Island is a comprehensive health and human services organization supporting more than 1,000 residents with disabilities and other life challenges throughout the state.

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