Crisis for caregivers

Wages: Nonprofit groups that aid disabled adults struggle to keep workers.

March 20, 2001|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Early on a Saturday morning, while most people are still sleeping, Ada Jackson bends over a 30-year-old man, getting him ready for the day. She brushes his teeth, runs a wet washcloth over his body, dresses him, hoists him into a wheelchair, changes his sheets and feeds him breakfast.

That is just the beginning of Jackson's 15-hour workday at Old Court, a nonprofit community home for disabled adults in Randallstown. Although she has been doing this for nearly 10 years, she still makes less than $9 an hour and has to work two jobs - 70 hours a week total - to support herself.

Jackson says she does the work because she loves it, but people like her are in short supply. Direct-service workers such as Jackson who work for nonprofit homes make less than their counterparts in government institutions and in nearby states, causing a shortage here that some say is compromising the safety of society's weakest individuals.

Bills before the state Senate and House of Delegates would increase the wages of people who work in nonprofit community homes that serve mentally retarded and disabled adults - but the governor warns that a lack of funds in the budget might make the increases impossible.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening "would very much like to be able to fund an increase in salaries, but the budget right now doesn't allow us to do all that we would like to do," says spokesman Michael Morrill. Four years ago, the governor started a $68.4 million, five-year initiative to strengthen services for the developmentally disabled, many of whom live with aging or elderly parents who worry about what will happen to their children when they passed away.

Diane McComb, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Services, a professional organization composed of 105 community programs around the state, says that unless the state sets aside more money for those who take care of the developmentally disabled, lives may be in danger: "We are collectively telling you we aren't keeping people safe any longer."

McComb says nonprofit community homes support about 21,000 developmentally disabled adults around the state - people who will likely need lifelong care because of conditions such as mental retardation or cerebral palsy. There are about 32,000 direct-service workers who take care of them.

"It is a near-crisis situation, and we're seeing things starting to come undone," says Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat and the primary sponsor of the Senate bill. Recently, he says, he got a call from one of the providers in his county who had to fire two workers for verbally abusing disabled clients.

"That's what happens ... when you have to take what you can get," Middleton says.

The campaign to increase wages comes as the state is reducing populations at state-run institutions, sending more mentally retarded adults to residential homes run by nonprofits. Many of these homes started in the 1970s in response to a growing concern over conditions at state institutions and a belief that people with disabilities have a better quality of life when they live in their own communities.

The state Developmental Disability Administration reimburses direct-support staff $6.89 per hour. With nonprofits able to provide only minimal supplements, the average wage in Maryland is about $8 an hour. People who do the same jobs in state institutions make an average wage of $13.78 an hour, McComb says.

"The work force issues right now are so extreme that we can't possibly compete," McComb says. As a result, she says, some of the agencies report staff vacancies of 40 percent or greater, forcing other workers to fill in with overtime hours.

These shortages make it hard for nonprofit institutions to attract qualified workers or fulfill safety requirements, says McComb, who knows of at least seven institutions under threat of state sanctions as a result.

The bills before the House and Senate would bring community wages up to levels comparable to starting wages for similar work in state facilities.

"This isn't just a health and safety issue," says Prince George's County Democrat Joan B. Pitkin, the bill's primary sponsor in the House. "This is a civil rights issue, as far as I'm concerned. We are putting the very lives of these people at risk."

Most direct-service employees work two or even three jobs to support themselves. Many, such as Jackson, work punishing hours, routinely log overtime or come in when they are sick because other workers cannot be found to fill their shifts.

Raymond D. Jordan, director of the Athelas Institute in Columbia, a nonprofit organization that runs day and residential programs for the developmentally disabled, says he worries that the overwork compromises the safety of both clients and caregivers.

Several years ago, Jordan says, his director of transportation came to work with the flu because he could not find anybody to take his place. On the way home, he had an accident and killed someone.

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