About a week ago, I led a group of advocates to discuss the current crisis on the retention and recruitment of direct care professionals. Those advocates included Shirley Perez, Director of The Ligas Family Advocate Program: Theresa Garate, CEO, the Anixter Center and Shawn Jeffers, CEO, Little City. What follows is a Tribune Editorial from our combined efforts. Well done!
We need new revenue. We need a real state budget with no cuts to disability services and we need it now!
When Shirley Perez’s daughter Tamekia Lewis began to lose her balance at age 3, Perez knew something was wrong. The doctors disagreed: “You’re just over-exaggerating. Don’t worry so much.”
At age 5, Tamekia suffered her first grand mal seizure. The doctors finally figured out she had been exposed to measles as a baby. The exposure caused her to regress. The seizure damaged the communicative parts of her brain. For years, even with medication, she continued to suffer from seizures.
Today, Tamekia is a 39-year-old woman with the mental capacity of a toddler. Perez is a single mother — her husband died in 1995 — whose lifeline is a state service that pays for her daughter’s care at a day facility while Perez works. That lifeline is in jeopardy. Lawmakers and Gov. Bruce Rauner agreed to only a stopgap state budget. It doesn’t include raises for health care workers such as those who help Tamekia five days a week. The workers, on average, earn less than $10 an hour through a formula the state could increase but has not since 2008.
Legislators passed a bill earlier this year that would raise the wages of health care workers who care for the developmentally disabled to $15 an hour. That increase, Perez says, is crucial to ensuring the disabled population — and thousands more waiting for care — get the help they deserve. The state’s base wage is so low, providers are scrambling to keep employees. The staff they do have is sometimes unreliable and eager for better-paying jobs, even flipping burgers.
Who wants to spend eight hours a day caring for needy clients such as Tamekia for less than $10 an hour? Changing adult diapers and feeding and bathing the disabled is a high-stress, low-paying job. The private care facilities the state relies on to provide these services make a strong case that they’re being strangled by the state’s dysfunction — perhaps more so than some other vendors reliant on Springfield. They have waited longer for raises, even as the state is under several court orders that mandate proper care for this population. “We’ve been putting money into facilities that are lying dormant because they can’t find employees to fill the positions,” says state Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, who sponsored the $15-an-hour bill in her chamber. “It’s not sustainable for the providers who care for these folks to maintain a proper level of care. We’re at serious risk of jeopardizing that right now. And our court monitor says we’re out of compliance.”
Term limits are key to moving Illinois forward
On this we all probably can agree: Protecting vulnerable people is a role of government, and increasing the wages of those on the front lines — every eight years, a cynic would note — would attract more dedicated staffers to care for the developmentally disabled.
But Illinois is beyond broke. The bill sounds swell but includes no funding source. Even if Rauner signs it, the state doesn’t have the roughly $300 million to pay for it (about half of that would be reimbursed by the federal government). Think check-kiting scheme.
Had legislators and Rauner hammered out a full-year budget, Perez and other parents might not be trapped in this vise.
But this is what happens when politicians care more about the November election than about helping the people they profess to help. The Democrat-led General Assembly, and eventually Rauner and many Republicans, decided this was the best they could do: Pass a half-measure and go home to campaign.
Give voters a chance to restore democracy in Illinois
Rauner is willing to talk about raising taxes to meet the state’s needs, such as this one. But he won’t write the General Assembly a blank check, and thank goodness for that. Lawmakers in Springfield and several previous governors have long shown they won’t prioritize needs so that spending matches revenue. No reform to the shabby ways governments do business, Rauner says, means no tax hike.
One reform would free local governments from having to pay high prevailing wages for small construction projects. Another would give local officials more control over what they can collectively bargain with public employees unions. Labor rules have become so suffocating — some even dictate what items can be sold in a building’s vending machines — that it’s hard for local officials to try to protect taxpayers and strike fair deals with employees. The employees always win. Rauner also wants to reform the state’s workers’ compensation program to make Illinois more business-friendly.
Have you noticed those ever-increasing property tax bills? If Democrats would agree to some of Rauner’s reforms, perhaps local governments wouldn’t continually be cranking up their property tax levies to pay for personnel and services. Democrats have run the legislature since 2003, with supermajorities since 2013.
These aren’t “union-busting” or unreasonable reforms in a state desperate for economic growth. But the Democratic leaders wouldn’t budge. So, a stopgap.
And parents such as Perez are trapped. The Democrats who claim to represent the middle class, the sick and the needy have failed them — promising money that doesn’t exist. Perez joined representatives from The Arc of Illinois who met with the Tribune Editorial Board to urge Rauner to sign the $15-an-hour bill.
We’re not here to sort out which of the state’s many, many needs should be addressed first. But Perez represents one more human cost of the standoff between Rauner and the two legislative leaders, Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Perez is not the only person worried about the future of her child while the pols play games with her life. No, there’s a long line of Shirley Perezes in this state. Remember them as you consider voting incumbents back into office Nov. 8.
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