Staff who work with disabled seeking pay increase

Staff Writer
I cover the cities of Andover, Blaine and Ramsey. I have worked at ABC Newspapers since August 2007.

Direct care workers who assist people with developmental disabilities rely on the state government for a pay increase.

Diann Polzin, of Isanti, helps Natasha White, of Anoka, with an art project at Rise’s Anoka facility that assists the developmental disabled people who need the most medical care. Photo by Eric Hagen
Diann Polzin, of Isanti, helps Natasha White, of Anoka, with an art project at Rise’s Anoka facility that assists the developmental disabled people who need the most medical care. Photo by Eric Hagen

The last wage increase came in 2013 when there was a 5 percent bump in pay and before that there was a 2 percent increase in 2008. There were wage freezes in the years between.

Under bills proposed in the Minnesota House and Senate, these direct care workers would receive consecutive 4 percent wage increases on July 1, 2017 and July 1, 2018. This would benefit more than 80,000 people statewide, according to Best Life Alliance, which is a statewide coalition of more than 130 organizations that support people with disabilities at their own homes, in group homes and at centers that are open during the day.

Supporters argue that positions go unfilled as people seek work in other industries that are less stressful.

“It is estimated that there are 8,700 unfilled direct support positions in Minnesota right now, and that number is growing as pay rates continue to lag behind other industries,” said Mike Burke, president of the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation.

The average wage of these workers in Minnesota is $12.32 per hour.

Rise Inc. Director of Advancement Noel McCormick said they have 18 openings for direct service providers, which constitutes 17 percent of its direct service provider positions. Rise only provides day centers and not any in-home services.

McCormick said the challenge for Rise and others who assist people with disabilities is the high stress and low pay of the job lead to high turnover rates. Rise currently budgets for 108 direct service provider positions, which is slightly less than one-third of its total workforce. In 2016, 55 direct service providers left Rise. It can take 10 weeks to find a replacement, she said.

She also knows of Rise employees who have another job because Rise cannot pay enough for that to be their only income.

“We have some amazing people who are passionate about this job, but if you can’t feed your kids and retail pays better, you are going to do what you have to do,” McCormick said.

Lynn Noren, president of Rise, said other industries can increase wages on their own. Service providers for the disabled can only increase wages when the Legislature says it can increase its rates charged to clients.

Diann Polzin is fortunate enough to only need to work at Rise, but she knows co-workers who need to work extra jobs for the additional income. While working with the disabled can be mentally challenging, she keeps working at Rise because she loves to see the day-to-day progress of the people they are helping.

More than 1,000 people rallied at the state Capitol on March 14 to advocate for legislation that would increase wages by 4 percent in 2017 and 2018 for more than 80,000 people who work with the developmentally disabled. Submitted photo
More than 1,000 people rallied at the state Capitol on March 14 to advocate for legislation that would increase wages by 4 percent in 2017 and 2018 for more than 80,000 people who work with the developmentally disabled. Submitted photo

Some of the disabled Rise works with are able to work, but others need to be assisted with every task and cannot talk. As Polzin was helping Natasha White with an art project, she held up different color markers and waited for a smile to see what color White wanted to use next.

According to McCormick, every Rise employee goes through a three-day orientation that includes training on CPR, how to read body language and crisis management. The training programs were designed by the University of Minnesota. They must also pass a commercial vehicle driver’s license test so they could drive Rise’s van to pick people up from their homes.

Beyond the proposed 4 percent wage increases in 2017 and 2018, the Best Life Alliance bills include a July 1, 2019, deadline to develop a long-term solution for this wage issue.

McCormick said wage increases should be more automatic, especially when minimum wage increases.

The Best Life Alliance bill has received bipartisan support and received committee hearings in the House and Senate, which allows the wage increases to be included in the omnibus health and human services bill.

On March 14, more than 1,000 people rallied at the state Capitol to show their support for these bills.

However, Noren is concerned that the 4 percent wage increases in 2017 and 2018 may not happen.

Amidst the larger state budget discussion, the Republicans in the House are proposing to decrease the health and human services budget by $600 million while the Senate GOP has proposed a $335 million cut to the $14.3 billion health and human services budget.

“I’m still hopeful and we will be engaging families and everyone we can until it’s over. But it’s not a good thing to have a negative target,” Noren said.

Gov. Mark Dayton is proposing $316 million in new HHS spending as well as shift $716 million in Medicaid spending from the state’s general fund into the Health Care Access Fund.

“The really difficult thing is our team members here are our most valuable resource. That’s the only way we can reach our mission,” Noren said. “They’ve already gone three years with no increase. And the wages in human services are low to begin with. It makes it really difficult for their families. We just really need to have the Legislature recognize that.”

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