|By Courtney Llewellyn|
Reminder Assistant Editor
WILBRAHAM Human service providers in the Commonwealth have not received a substantial pay increase in 20 years. Sen. Gale Candaras (D-Wilbraham) plans to change that.
On Nov. 28, Candaras presented Senate Bill 65 to the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, asking for, among other things, a change in the rates paid to providers of disabled persons.
The bill would also establish a rate-setting commission so providers won't have to wait another 20 years to see an adjustment in their salaries.
"The average human service provider in Western Massachusetts makes under $25,000 a year," Candaras said. "I was making more as a secretary on Wall Street after I graduated high school in 1972. It is pay stagnation."
Human service providers perform "very, very hard work," according to Candaras -- feeding, bathing, lifting and caring for the elderly and the disabled citizens of the state.
"Most of these people don't want to be in nursing homes," she said. "There has been a paradigm shift away from custodial care in residential homes. They want to remain in their communities and in their homes. We need a virtual army of caregivers to make this happen."
Unfortunately, due to the lack of an increase in wages over the past two decades, providers are hard to come by and even harder to keep.
"Our workforce has not received adequate compensation," Gail Brown, a division director of the Association for Community Living, said. "The ability to recruit and retain staff is a challenge. A lot of our workers have to work two jobs to make ends meet."
Brown added the Association for Community Living has been having trouble attracting anyone interested in a caregiver position, when 20 years ago college-educated workers came in droves.
"Candaras really understands the crisis human services is in," Brown stated. "They're about 30 percent behind what comparable staff make in the state system. A less paid workforce means a less skilled workforce."
In Candaras' testimony when she presented Senate Bill 65, she said one in 10 Massachusetts men, women and children needs a caretaker. More than 185,000 human service providers are on duty providing that care. "This Committee [the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities] knows better than most how desperately this population of workers is needed and how woefully underpaid they are," she stated.
With that number of workers shrinking daily, however, there is a large turnover rate in providers.
In fiscal year 2007, nearly one-quarter of all professional staff and direct care workers left their job, according to Candaras.
"The worst thing for an elderly person or someone with developmental disabilities that needs care is to have different faces every week," Candaras said. "They need the stability of one caregiver."
Kathy Wilson of Springfield's Behavioral Health Network agreed.
"Think of it this way: If you had a child in preschool who had a new caretaker every few months, it would be disruptive and discouraging. That's what it's like for a family member with a disability. They become dependent on someone, become close with someone, and then lose them," Wilson said. "Many of our paraprofessionals and professional caregivers leave after six months or a year because they don't make enough money to keep the job."
She added that without additional funding from the state, she's had to cut a position to keep funds up.
"It is absolutely critical for Senate 65 to pass for caregivers and those in need," Brown stated.
"Senate 65 would make the state pay attention," Wilson added. "They needed to pay attention to this yesterday."
And with a huge population of aging baby boomers on the horizon, hundreds of thousands of caregivers will be required.
"The passage of Senate 65 will represent an important investment in the Commonwealth's future," Candaras said. "I am very excited for it. The governor supports it and already said he'd sign it. We cannot ignore the crisis that is coming."
The Senate had their last hearing of 2007 on Dec. 5 but Candaras expects a motion to be made on the bill by January, and hopes it will be enacted in the first half of 2008.
"This is very important, especially here in Western Massachusetts" where more than 100 human service organizations are located in the lower Pioneer Valley alone, Candaras said.