Direct Support Professionals: Heroes With a Tough Job
This important information comes my way from Wendy Barrett, BSW, Service Coordinator at Denali Family Services. But first, “what is Denali Family Services?” you might ask. Here is the elegant way in which they describe themselves:
At Denali Family Services, we believe and operate under the simple premise that children and families belong together. We believe that children belong in their own communities. We are advocates. Our goal is to creatively provide health services for children who experience significant emotional challenges and their families or caregivers. Every day we work with parents, children, health care providers, and anyone relevant in each child’s life to assist in reaching his/her life goals. Our goal may seem lofty to some, but to us as Denali Family Services, it is our life’s work and joy.
Here is the core of the important notice that was forwarded to me by the nice folks at Denali Family Services…
Earlier this year, Representatives Lee Terry (R-NE) and Lois Capps D-CA) introduced the Direct Support Professionals Fairness and Security Act of 2005 (H.R. 1264). Reps. Terry and Capps recognize the inadequate wages paid to hundreds of thousands of direct support professionals who struggle daily to enhance the lives of people with disabilities while at the same time struggling to provide income security for their own families. H.R. 1264 represents a first step in bringing an unfair situation to the attention of Congress and the nation.
For millions of people with disabilities of all ages, direct support professionals are the key to living successfully in their home communities. Direct support professionals are often personal care assistants or home care aides who assist people with severe disabilities with medications, preparing and eating meals, dressing, mobility, personal hygiene and handling daily affairs.
Direct support professionals face many difficult challenges throughout their careers. Unfortunately, these difficulties have led to high turnover and ongoing vacancies, which can place people with severe disabilities at risk. Annual turnover rates for direct support professionals range to more than 75 percent.
The lack of adequate and well-trained direct support staff for people with disabilities continues to threaten the quality of services provided for people with disabilities; undermines their choice to live and work in the community; and chips away their ability to control their own lives.
The Arc, United Cerebral Palsy, the American Network of Community Options and Resources (ANCOR) and the Lutheran Services of America are participating in a national campaign to highlight this important issue and gain support for H.R. 1264.
It just so happens that the June issue of Alaska Economic Trends (27 page PDF file), my favorite Alaska socio-economic data publication, is a special edition on Alaskan jobs and wages. Let’s see how direct support professionals fare in Alaska. Page 14 has a table on the “Demographic Profile of Alaska’s Top Occupations, 2003,” the latest year for which complete data is available. “Personal and Home Care Aides” is ranked as Alaska’s 41st occupation in terms of the total number of workers, over 2,000.
The average age of direct support professionals in Alaska is 38 years of age, with 23% of these workers over age 50! This is tough, physical labor for an older worker. How many of them have adequate health insurance, or any at all? Not really sure—Alaska Economic Trends doesn’t report that information—but I’ll bet not many do. Note also that well over four-fifths of all direct support professionals in Alaska are women. Women in “other services” in Alaska, the closest occupational category to “direct support professionals,” average annual earnings of $18,346. This is $7,000 less than men in similar occupations, $5,000 less the average wage of all females in Alaska, and $15,000 less than the average annual earnings of all males Alaskan.
Put these facts about direct support professionals in the context of the recent destruction of pension plans for Alaskan public workers, the ongoing attacks on Medicaid, the collapse of private pension systems in the United States, the disappearance of health insurance for low and middle income workers in the United States, and the threatened privatization (and destruction) of Social Security. No, it doesn’t look good. Bad public policy threatens the well-being of families in Alaska and across the nation.
Lawrence D. Weiss Ph.D., M.S.
President of the Board