Peoria Journal Star
Updated Apr 21, 2014 at 10:35 PM

It’s a wonder anyone can be found to work in a group home for adults who are profoundly

They do jobs the vast majority of us don’t want, lifting fully grown people who often are
wheelchair dependent, feeding them, bathing them, learning to communicate with the
nonverbal, dealing with behavioral challenges that may include biting and hitting and other
forms of frustration, sometimes becoming unrelated family — all so they can earn, on
average, $9.35 an hour in Illinois.

That is well below the federal poverty level for a family of four. Many are on public
assistance. This is not work for teenagers seeking a little extra cash to buy an iPhone; it’s
a profession for most, and the state mandates a minimum level of training and competency.
They haven’t had a raise since 2007. It should surprise few who’ve been paying any attention
that Illinois ranks near the bottom nationally in reimbursement for the mostly not-for-profit
providers of this care and shelter, of which there are at least 10 in the Tri-County. It should
surprise no one at all that turnover is high, which is destabilizing for those who need stability
and continuity most of all. And when something terrible happens because sometimes you get
what you pay for, because employees get burned out working overtime and trying to make
ends meet on peanuts, because on occasion employers compromise safety when they can’t
quite afford to ensure it, it’s a scandal that those with decision-making authority can’t wash
their hands of quickly and thoroughly enough.

And so legislation has been introduced to improve that situation. It would gradually increase
the minimum pay to $13 an hour for these direct support workers by 2016, starting with a
$1-an-hour wage hike on Jan. 1. Gov. Pat Quinn is on board, putting aside some $30 million
in his proposed 2015 budget.

We trust most would agree these workers should earn more money, though you always have
some who haven’t walked in those shoes and believe taxpayers should bear no responsibility
for the struggles of others, to which we would say: You’re asking the impossible of many of
these families, and “there but for the grace of God go I.” On the flip side are those who chant
the mantra that those who work hard and honestly for a living have a fundamental right to a
liveable wage, which sometimes comes up against basic math and budget realities. Illinois’ fiscal
situation is widely acknowledged as the worst in the nation, and this pay hike would add up to
significant additional costs (though half of that would be offset by Uncle Sam).

But here’s the thing: Dire as Illinois’ budget situation is, legislators always seem able to find
millions upon millions in tax incentives for otherwise profitable corporations that threaten to
leave, or to apply their caviar tastes to renovating the Capitol, or just last week, to take the first
step toward providing $100 million in taxpayer temptation money to lure Barack Obama’s
presidential library to the Land of Lincoln. Never mind that other presidents — Bill Clinton, the
Bushes — raised the money privately to construct their libraries.

We appreciate that there aren’t a ton of votes out there from those who care about these issues,
and that they can’t go toe to toe with the well-heeled special interests for legislators’ attention.
But in the end it’s a matter of priorities, and Illinois’ are too often wrong, sometimes morally wrong.

Peorian Charlotte Cronin’s son is 28-year-old Daniel, who lives in one of these group homes and
whose round-the-clock care, his mother acknowledges, is “physically exhausting and not very

“I want Daniel to be safe. That’s number one,” she says. “I also want him to have a life. I’m not
asking for a Mercedes-Benz type of life.”

This is one of those areas where charity doesn’t meet the need and where for all practical
purposes, only government can answer the call, providing a safety net and peace of mind for
families who already have enough stress in their lives, who didn’t ask for these challenges.

They’re in virtually every community. It is hypocritical on its face to preach the nobility of work
while in practice doing everything in our power to devalue it.

The Legislature needs to find a way here.

Tony Paulauski
Executive Director
The Arc of Illinois
20901 S. LaGrange Rd. Suite 209
Frankfort, IL 60423
815-464-1832 (OFFICE)
815-464-1832 (CELL)

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