Commentary

We work with people with intellectual disabilities. Pa. needs to step up for us now | Opinion

We have asked for help for decades. Legislators have the opportunity now to fund our jobs adequately

Helena Johnson (L) and Naomi Davenport (R) are direct support workers with a combined total of 30 years’ experience (Submitted Photos/Capital-Star photo collage by John L. Micek)

By Naomi Davenport and Helena Johnson

Our jobs are rewarding, risky, enjoyable, and exhausting. We see colleagues leaving their jobs because they can’t pay their bills with the wages the state funds, and we are heartbroken as we watch the people we serve lose the DSPs that love and care for them. So we are speaking up!!

We support the General Assembly approving $65 million in state funds, to be matched by federal funds, that would allow DSPs to paid the same amount that the state pays its own DSPs who work for the Department of Human Services.

Community DSPs earn so little that more than 60% of DSPs leave their job in the first year. Few people can survive on the poverty wage the state has set for community programs.

We love working with people with ID/A, helping them be happy, safe, active with their families, with many employed and contributing to their local community.

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People with ID/A deserve to be happy and to live like everyone else, even though some need significant supports. They are joyful and grateful, and they inspire us every day. And we love them. We love knowing we are supporting them in their homes, activities, and jobs.

It’s not fair that the state has funded a rate for us that doesn’t give us a living wage. When you talk about “essential workers,” you’re talking about us.

Many of the people we serve would literally not survive without the supports we provide to help with cooking, feeding, and administration of medications.

During the pandemic, the DSP workforce has continued to work 24/7/365. How many professionals can say the same?

We want to suggest that Gov. Tom Wolf and state legislators consider doing our jobs for just one day. They would immediately then increase the funding providers have requested. DSPs are not paid what they should be, especially compared to people working in jobs that don’t have the training, dedication, or responsibility we have.

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We are sometimes at risk when we care for a person in a wheelchair, for instance. And if we cannot prepare food for these people, they don’t eat. If we don’t bathe them, they have bad hygiene.

If we leave a person in a chair by themselves, they will stay there until someone else comes around. They need us. And we love our work! But the ongoing training we get and the regulations our provider has to work with are not even comparable to those of people who work in a convenience store or restaurant.

DSPs cannot continue to function like this. We have to sacrifice our own income potential to stay in our jobs. How long can we continue to do that? We don’t have enough staff. They are leaving. And why wouldn’t they? They can make $18 at the local convenience store or warehouse job.

Why stay here for hundreds less per month and with more risk and responsibility? Because we love the people we support and the happiness we help them achieve every day. We are very fulfilled, personally and professionally and the people we work with are safe and happy.

But we know DSPs that work two jobs just to feed and shelter their own families. How long can they keep doing that? We have co-workers who work an 8-hour day and then come to work here for another 12 or more hours. That often means overtime, which costs us for child care, after-school care, and more, and we’re tired. So tired.

The state is our only funding source. The people we help often have no family to help them, and if they do it’s probably elderly parents who cannot provide for them much longer.

One of the people we support has a dad in the hospital as we write this. So funding is not just about paying us a living wage. It’s about making sure these vulnerable Pennsylvanians have well-trained, consistent, professional support.

What if you were disabled or had a child who was disabled. How would you feel about letting someone untrained and inexperienced care for that loved one and making less than the average convenience store or fast food worker?

We have homes, insurance, cars, food, and children who want to go to college. How can we pay for that on this salary? Could you do it?

It’s time. Now is the time to adequately fund rates for DSPs.

Naomi Davenport and Helena Johnson are direct support professionals whose combined careers total almost 30 years. They work for Melmark, an almost 60-year-old company doing business throughout Pennsylvania, New England, and the Carolinas.

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