Biss: Lawmakers should override governor’s veto of caregiver pay hike

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CHICAGO – Christine Rivera cares for six men who are developmentally disabled and live together in a Downers Grove group home. The work can be grueling and physically demanding, but it also is gratifying, she testified Monday during a Senate Human Services Committee hearing in Chicago.

But after 15 years of caring for people who are developmentally disabled, Rivera makes just $11.90 per hour based on rates set by the State of Illinois. Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed legislation this year that would have given caregivers like her a long-overdue raise to $15 per hour.

Low salaries are largely responsible for a severe statewide staffing problem that prevents developmentally disabled residents from getting services they need and deserve. Organizations that offer the services on behalf of the state are unable to expand programs or hire more caregivers because people can earn more at many other jobs, including, for example, at a fast-food restaurant.

The result is a backlog of nearly 19,000 developmentally disabled Illinoisans in desperate need of services, with little hope of receiving them anytime soon.

Senator Daniel Biss (D-Evanston), chairman of the Human Services Committee, said it’s time for the legislature to take a stand for workers like Rivera and the families that rely on them to care for their loved ones.

“Today we heard the best explanation we could ever hope for about why the legislature must override the governor’s veto,” Biss said. “This crisis is causing justifiable and extraordinary anxiety for many Illinois families. We have to offer decent living wages to these caregivers if we are to have any hope at all of resolving this problem.”

Monday’s hearing was designed to shed light on the state’s plans for moving forward after the benchmarks of a 2011 court mandate – the Ligas consent decree – expire next year.

The sunset of the decree’s outlined requirements on June 15, 2017, could cause additional chaos for the state’s network of human service providers, which already is reeling from the state budget stalemate. The decree requires the state to fund certain services, regardless of its ability to pay.

A court monitor earlier this year determined the state was out of compliance with the decree, in large part because of the statewide staffing shortages.

“I have had a lot of coworkers say they’ve had to work too hard for the money,” said Rivera, a suburban Westmont woman who has been caring for developmentally disabled people for 15 years and has no savings or retirement nest egg.

“It’s getting harder to hire replacements,” she added, noting that her company’s starting salary is $9.30 per hour. “One coworker has been working double shifts for weeks. When agencies like Ray Graham (Associates) are struggling to staff the group homes they have now, how can they expand services?”

Monday’s hearing occurred on the heels of a Daily Herald series exposing the stress and desperation felt by suburban Illinois families who are forced to care for developmentally disabled loved ones on their own, often with little to no support from the state or opportunities for respite.

Biss said families deserve answers to their questions, noting that it’s a matter of civil rights, peace of mind and integrity.

“Refusing to pay living wages to the people we rely on to care for some of the most vulnerable residents among us sends an extraordinary message about Illinois’ values,” he said. “It’s a sad, embarrassing statement for all of us.”