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Raises coming for some state-funded caregivers

The State Journal-Register - 9/10/2017

Sept. 10--A 75-cent-per-hour raise for caregivers of people with developmental disabilities will help group homes hire and keep staff, improving care for those residents, nonprofit leaders say.

The wage increase, which was included in the fiscal 2018 state budget, should take effect in a few months. The administration of Gov. Bruce Rauner indicated last week that it would begin administrative processes to send nonprofits the money to grant the raises within about 60 days, retroactive to Aug. 1.

However, another raise that was also included in the budget -- a 48-cent-per hour increase for about 28,000 "personal assistants" and "individual maintenance home health workers" who care for physically disabled people in clients' homes -- is still on hold. The administration says it is still working to approve and release funding contracts for other non-profits.

The administration says it is still considering whether to approve and release funding contracts for other nonprofits.

The 75-cent raise set in motion last week for the caregivers for people with developmental disabilities would be the first such pay increase granted through state funding in nine years, said Kim Zoeller, spokeswoman for the "They Deserve More" coalition of not-for-profit organizations that has pushed for raises for more than two years. About 34,000 direct-service workers would benefit.

Agencies said they were unsure why Rauner, a Republican, hadn't acted sooner after the Democratic-controlled General Assembly passed the budget in July, as an override of the governor's veto.

Rauner hasn't explained the delay, and his spokesman, Jason Schaumburg, didn't comment on the reason Friday in a written response to questions from The State Journal-Register.

The administration has told SEIU Healthcare Illinois, the union representing the personal assistants and individual maintenance home health workers -- most of whom earn $13 an hour -- that the 48-cent raises can be granted only as part of ongoing contract negotiations.

The Service Employees International Union disagrees and filed a civil lawsuit Wednesday in Cook County Circuit Court to force the administration to act.

The 48-cent wage increase "wasn't a suggestion," said state Rep. Gregory Harris, D-Chicago, a key budget negotiator for his political party in the Illinois House who wants to see the increase carried out immediately by the executive branch Rauner controls.

"This is serious stuff," Harris said.

Schaumburg said state labor law requires that the state and labor unions "abide by the status quo while they are bargaining over a new collective bargaining agreement."

Schaumburg added: "The state remains willing to discuss issues with SEIU that are properly subject to collective bargaining, including wages, and calls on SEIU to use the statutorily required bargaining process rather than seek to make an end run around that process through litigation."

Harris said he hopes the administration's decision last week to proceed on a $6 billion borrowing program pushed by Democrats to pay down the state's backlog of bills will lead to the governor carrying out parts of the 2018 budget that bring relief for a variety of human-service providers.

The Springfield-based Hope not-for-profit organization continues to wait for state approval of a $4.2 million contract that would fund autism diagnostic and treatment clinics in Springfield and elsewhere in Illinois.

Other Illinois nonprofits -- including those that provide after-school programs for at-risk teens -- also haven't been issued contracts by the administration that would allow them to receive between $50 million and $100 million in funds appropriated in the budget.

Schaumburg said, "The governor is finalizing the budget implementation plan ... and agencies will soon be notified of the funding decisions."

The pay raise for workers serving the developmentally disabled is expected to cost the state $50 million to $60 million per year. Half of the cost would be paid by the federal government through the Medicaid program, Zoeller said.

Illinois ranks 47th in the nation for spending on people with developmental disabilities, Zoeller said.

"This is the first step in what we want," said Zoeller, president and chief executive officer of the Lisle-based Ray Graham Association. Raising the pay of workers to $15 per hour from the statewide average of $9.35 is the coalition's long-term goal.

The state-funded wage increase is desperately needed, she said, adding that paying workers has been especially challenging for nonprofits in Cook County, where the minimum wage in most parts of Cook is $10 per hour.

In Chicago, the minimum wage is $11. The statewide minimum wage is $8.25.

"We want to make sure we have competitive wages so that we can attract the highest caliber staff so people with disabilities can live the lives they want to live," Zoeller said.

"We understand the budget constraints of the state," she said, "but we are responsible for people's lives. We have the population that cannot stay by themselves. They get hurt, or they hurt other people."

The notice from the Rauner administration says payment recalculations should take about two months to complete. Zoeller said she wishes it wouldn't take that long.

Greg O'Connor, chief executive officer of Sparc, a Springfield-based nonprofit in line to grant employees that wage hike if it receives the additional state dollars, said Friday he doesn't want to comment until he gets more information from the state in coming days.

David Brooks, co-CEO of the Individual Advocacy Group, a Romeoville-based nonprofit that serves more than two dozen developmentally disabled clients in Springfield group homes and day services, said the wage increase is "movement in the right direction."

The wage increase will benefit about 50 employees of the agency in Springfield, he said.

Springfield resident John Porter, 48, who has a developmental disability and lives in a group home operated by Pathway Services Unlimited, said Pathway workers often have problems paying their personal living expenses.

Porter, who is employed part-time as a dishwasher earning minimum wage and also participates in a Sparc day program, said he hopes the wage increase for Pathway employees reduces the "revolving door" of staff at the group home he shares with three other men.

SEIU spokesman James Muhammad said the personal assistant workforce, which is made up mostly of women and people of color, also could stabilize when the 48-cent raise is granted.

The governor's refusal to put the raise for SEIU-represented workers into effect makes it appear that he doesn't care about people with disabilities and wants to continue his attacks on unionized workers, Muhammad said.

"I wish he could prove me wrong on this," Muhammad said.

Workers have gone without a raise since December 2014. The estimated cost to the state of enacting the 48-cent raise is about $12 million annually, and half of the cost would be covered by the federal government through the Medicaid program, SEIU officials said.

Tashika Hatchett, 38, a Springfield single mother of a teenager, said she "barely makes ends meet" earning $13 per hour, but enjoys caring for people.

She currently works 35 hours a week taking care of her 67-year-old mother, a double amputee who goes through dialysis three times a week.

"Any little money would help the worker to figure out where the next meal is coming from," Hatchett said. "Forty-eight cents is nothing to Rauner. We can't put a price on clients' lives."

-- Contact Dean Olsen: dean.olsen@sj-r.com, 788-1543, twitter.com/DeanOlsenSJR.

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(c)2017 The State Journal-Register, Springfield, Ill.

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