CHICAGO — Organizations that provide care to people with disabilities are reporting crisis-level shortages of employees needed to feed, bathe and perform other essential tasks for residents in Illinois, a situation that has prompted the closure of some group homes and kept hundreds of families on waiting lists for services.

“We’ve never encountered anything like this, where people are actually closing homes or moving people into other homes because they can’t get the staffing,” said Tony Paulauski, executive director of The Arc of Illinois, a nonprofit that advocates for people with disabilities. “This is really, really unusual.”

Advocates say the staffing shortages are the result of organizations’ inability to attract workers — known as direct support professionals — with an average wage of $9.35 per hour, as determined by state funding. The wages have not been increased in eight years, leaving potential applicants in the improving economy to opt for jobs where they can make more money doing less grueling work.

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In hearings before state House and Senate committees this month, advocates for some of Illinois’ largest organizations providing services to people with disabilities are calling on legislators to approve bills aimed at raising the minimum wage for direct support professionals — who work in all types of settings, from residential facilities to day service centers — to $15 an hour. The state’s minimum wage is $8.25 per hour, and Chicago’s minimum wage is $10 an hour, set to increase to $10.50 on July 1.

“The direct support professionals are working with people that often times require their help physically to move. They are transferring people in and out of their wheelchairs, helping them with their personal care that they need, driving vehicles,” said Kim Zoeller, CEO of the Ray Graham Association, which operates 42 sites around DuPage County providing services to people with developmental disabilities.

“You think about $9.35 an hour, and why would you have all the emotional and physical stress put on you when I could fold shirts at Target?” Zoeller asked.

While a similar shortage of direct support professionals is playing out across the country, some Illinois legislators say the bills before the House and Senate are a tough sell here due to the state budget impasse.

“At this point, we just don’t have the money to do this,” said Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine. “We’re running a bigger deficit every day even without passing a budget.”

Niketa Ingram, 33, took a job as a direct support professional for Trinity Services, Inc. last year because she liked the idea of caring for people in need. Since then, she has worked at a group home in Joliet where she helps residents get dressed, eat, go to doctor’s appointments and complete other day-to-day tasks. She received training when she was hired but wasn’t required to have any specialized skills, she said.

Although Ingram loves her work, she said her $8.35 per hour wage has made it hard for her to provide for her two children.

“I try to stick around just to see if they can try to get raises,” Ingram said. “If not, then I will have to try to look for something that’s giving me a little bit more money coming in. It’s very stressful and very hard.”

Administrators who run group homes say it’s a sentiment echoed by many direct support professionals, who make up about 90 percent of the staff at many facilities serving those with disabilities.

Zoeller said she currently has 40 unfilled direct support professional positions at the Ray Graham Association, more vacancies than she has seen in her 22 years there. Before the last 18 months, the highest number of jobs available were 10 to 15, she said.

“I think a lot of it had to do with the point of time where we were with the economy… that you started to see fast food restaurants upping their wages and going through very concerted wage campaign efforts,” Zoeller said.

“I believe the minimum wage (increase) in Chicago hurts us,” she added, noting that the organization’s facilities are all in DuPage County outside Chicago.

At Trinity Services, which operates nearly 100 group homes across the state, the effect of staffing shortages is starting to show. Two homes in the Joliet area recently closed, and administrators are in the process of consolidating two more within the next six weeks, said Art Dykstra, Trinity’s CEO.

For the last two years, Dykstra also has turned away parents with state-issued decrees granting their children residential services. Parents can wait years for their children’s names to be pulled off waiting lists for such benefits, but without enough staff to operate residential facilities, Dykstra can’t open new homes to accommodate them, he said.

“That’s the quandary,” he said. “You can imagine the joy that parents have when their kid’s name is pulled, and now they’re still waiting to find out what to do next.”

Marianne Manko, spokeswoman for Illinois Department of Human Services, said state officials, too, would like to see wages increase for direct support professionals, but they are powerless to do so because the wages must be approved by state lawmakers.

Most of the nonprofits in Illinois that cater to people with disabilities operate primarily with funds that come from state allocations, which are either introduced by the governor or included in a budget approved by the state legislature. Money provided by the state is matched with federal funds through Medicaid, advocates said.

“In a perfect world, we would be able to pay people a higher amount of money,” Manko said. “But right now, we have a legislature that won’t even give us a budget.”

Josh Evans, legislative director for the Illinois Association of Rehabilitation Facilities, said in the meantime, organizations that provide services to those with disabilities will be forced to operate homes with high numbers of residents — as many as eight — while similar homes across the country tend to keep the number of residents at fewer than four. Ultimately it becomes a safety risk for those residents, he said.

“We understand there are all these various crises going on, and we get that, and they’re all legitimate,” Evans said. “But the state has an obligation to provide opportunities to people with disabilities.”

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