By Mark Klaus
Since its inception in 1961, the nonprofit I lead, Home of Guiding Hands, has provided benchmark programming and housing for men, women, and children with developmental disabilities. The organization has become engaged in the issue of how the remarkable individuals who become caretakers for the developmentally disabled are classified under California state law.
Home of Guiding Hands has evolved from one 14-acre campus in Lakeside to 31 four-to-six-person homes and numerous community-based services throughout San Diego County and Imperial Valley. It has become one of the largest providers of support and services in San Diego and Imperial Counties, serving more than 2,500 infants, adolescents and adults with developmental disabilities.
Currently, our staff who support our clients are classified as entry-level workers by the state. The wage issue is significant to us, as we witness the depth and breadth of their skill and dedication required every day to maximize the experience of all who come to us. We believe our direct-care staff are grossly underpaid and undervalued for the work that they do.
The minimum wage in San Diego is $11.50 an hour. The state minimum is lower at $11. The state has taken the position that it will only reimburse employees at the rate of $11, despite local wage ordinances, and that no rate adjustments are needed.
Those of us in the developmental disabilities arena find this position by the state to be both disheartening and unacceptable. The remarkable staff at Home of Guiding Hands — direct support professionals — are the front line people who allow our nonprofit and others like us to truly have a positive impact on the lives of individuals with developmental disabilities and their families. They allow us to fulfill our mission: To Improve The Lives Of Those We Serve!”
We don’t see ourselves as caregivers. Rather, we are partners, facilitators, community members and teachers. For 50 years, we have used best practices in our services for persons with developmental disabilities, thereby maximizing their independence, productivity and quality of life.
The families we serve agree. Megan is a 36 year old who has been with Home of Guiding Hands since 2009. Her father, Chris, is a small business owner, and he and his wife cared for Megan at home until 2008 when his wife passed away. After her passing, he found the demands of single parenting very difficult and though he was active in Megan’s care all of her life, trying to care for an adult female with mild cerebral palsy and an intellectual delay was too difficult for him on his own. He is an avid supporter of our nonprofit and strongly believes that Megan’s caretakers deserve to be classified as professional employees, not as unskilled workers who are only subject to minimum wage.
Steve Scuba and his ex-wife Kristen, parents of Lauren, a member of our community, agree. Lauren is almost 30 years old. She is the oldest of three siblings. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor at an early age and was cared for by her parents until she was a young adult. Steve, a retired police officer, said, “The stress associated with Lauren’s diagnosis on the younger children was hard to deal with. Lauren is much happier at Home of Guiding Hands. As a direct care professional myself, I can’t grasp the concept that the caretakers only make minimum wage.”
Andrea is a registered nurse and her husband is a retired doctor. They have a 30-year-old son, Matt, who has lived with us since he was 18. Matt has two siblings. His disability is severe; however, he gets around really well. He is happy all of the time. “We couldn’t care for Matt at home,” said Andrea. “Home of Guiding Hands has dramatically improved the quality of life for the family and Matt. I can’t imagine how a dedicated caretaker for an individual like Matt should be categorized as an entry-level worker and paid minimum wage.”
The low reimbursement of caregivers has a dramatic impact on how agencies like ours struggle to make ends meet. Ninety percent of providers are experiencing increased labor costs; 46 percent of providers have closed or downsized programs; and 60 percent are considering closing or downsizing programs. These are only a few of the challenges faced by organizations like Home of Guiding Hands.
Recently, I met with Jason Weisz, senior field representative for State Sen. Toni Atkins. I was joined at this meeting by the leaders of the San Diego Regional Center, ARC of California, United Cerebral Palsy San Diego and Employment and Community Options.
Together we employ more than 3,300 staff in San Diego County and support a significantly high percentage of the more than 27,000 children, adolescents and adults with developmental disabilities that receive services in San Diego and Imperial Counties. We are united in our belief that caregivers for individuals with developmental disabilities have highly professional skill sets and expertise, and deserve to be compensated accordingly.
The time has come to take action on behalf of our committed, well-trained and dedicated staff. Our next step is to present the powerful evidence to the State, and work together to generate legislative support that makes sense for our caregivers, and ensures organizations like ours continue to provide optimum service to the individuals and families we care about so much.
Mark Klaus is president and CEO of Home of Guiding Hands, one of San Diego County’s largest provider s of programming and housing for men, women, and children with developmental disabilities.
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