SAN DIEGO — Hans can be sweet. The wiry 21-year-old will spontaneously ask his caregivers for a hug or what they want for their birthdays. But his spot on the severe end of the autism spectrum also makes him loud and prone to repeating the same question over and over again, especially when he’s excited or agitated.

On a recent morning, encountering some new visitors, the question was direct: “What’s your name? What’s your name? What’s your name? What’s your name? What’s your name? What’s your name? What’s your name? What’s your name? What’s your name? What’s your name? What’s your name? What’s your name?”

Even if each question receives an answer, it can still take a while for the feedback to break Hans out of his verbal loop. And, if those answers don’t seem to understand the question he’s asking, Hans may choose a more direct method to get his point across. A quick punch or kick is not out of the question.

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His own family could not handle his endless intensity, and Hans has been under full-time care of the state since he was 11.

Hans is cared for by the El-Cajon-based Home of Guiding Hands, which is part of a statewide coalition pushing for California to affirm that caring for the state’s 300,000 residents with developmental disabilities takes more than entry-level skills and is worth more than minimum wage.

Certainly, Alan Kana, who has helped care for Hans for five years now, does not do the kind of work expected by a new recruit in retail or food service. In those jobs, the customers tend to demand service, but not at the tops of their lungs. And entry-level jobs don’t usually turn violent.

A tall and broad man with a neat beard, Kana flashes a quick smile when asked how many times his client has struck him. There’s no number. But Hans has gotten agitated enough to require temporary hospitalization about 40 times in the past three years. Those episodes, he says, usually do become physical.

“He doesn’t mean it. He just gets frustrated when we can’t understand what he’s trying to tell us,” Kana said.

As manager of the four-client house where he works, Kana makes more than $20 per hour, but the state thinks his work is worth much less. Today, the California Department of Developmental Services reimburses minimum wage — just $11 per hour — no matter how much experience or training a person has.

Mark Klaus, Guiding Hands’ chief executive, said that most on his staff are making more than minimum wage but less than $15 per hour to take care of the 182 children and adults with developmental disabilities under his organization’s care in 31 single-family homes the nonprofit owns in East County neighborhoods.

State compensation, Klaus said, is expected to be nearly $400,000 short of covering wage costs this year, meaning that the balance must come from philanthropy, which can be unpredictable year-to-year. But it’s the notion of calling these folks entry-level workers, and saying they should only be paid minimum wage, that really gets to him.

“There has to be some realization that what our staff do, it’s not an entry-level, minimum-wage job,” Klaus said. “If you work in this home, there is a very high probability that you will be hit, you will be kicked, you will be spit on, you will have something thrown at you, you will find yourself chasing somebody down the street.”

The coalition that Guiding Hands is part of is petitioning the state Department of Developmental Services to increase pay for the estimated 40,000 “direct support professionals” who care for nearly 300,000 people with developmental disabilities in California.

State Assemblyman Chris Holden (D-Pasadena) recently sent a letter asking that $25 million in “bridge funding” be added to next year’s operating budget to help “address operating cost pressures arising from extraordinary cost-of-living increases in each of California’s major population centers.”

Amy Westling, director of the Association of Regional Center Agencies, said the cash would help to increase compensation in areas where the local minimum wage is already higher than $11 per hour. For example, the minimum wage in San Francisco is already $14 per hour and will increase to $15 per hour on July 1. It’s $13.25 per hour in Los Angeles this year and $11.50 in San Diego.

But, even if the state legislature does approve that funding request, much more money would be necessary to create a wage structure that goes beyond the minimum. At the end of the day, Westling said, the organizations that take care of difficult clients face stiff competition with other businesses that tap the minimum wage workforce.

“The budget request this year does not address the question of how you compete with McDonald’s or Carl’s Jr. for labor,” Westling said.

The Department of Developmental Services is currently conducting a wage survey to determine what workers should be paid, and that document should be released in 2019.

California law requires these workers to have two 35-hour training courses over a two-year period, plus regular “continuing education” training. Curriculum includes lessons on medication management, nutrition and exercise and risk management in daily living. Workers must have 18 months of prior caregiving experience before being hired.

Given the relatively low pay and the fact that the job often involves serving clients who may throw punches or return to the same already-answered questions day after day, year after year, some may wonder why anyone sticks with it.

Kana, Hans’ caregiver, said he has been doing the job since he was 17 or 18 and credited it with making him grow up and “see the world different, accept people the way they are.”

Though it may not always be clear to the average observer, he can see that Hans appreciates conversation and the regular field trips that he and his housemates make into the community several times per week.

“It’s rewarding because it feels like we’re giving these kids a chance to be successful and not just give up on them,” Kana said. “They deserve every right like everyone else deserves. They deserve a chance to be part of the community.”

© 2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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