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Standing Up for a DSP Wage Increase – An Open Letter from the CEO and Executive Director

The Governor has proclaimed September 13 – 19 as Direct Support Professional Recognition (DSP) Week in Illinois. Here and across the country, organizations and communities will celebrate their direct support workers for the incredible difference they make each day in the lives of millions of Americans with disabilities. The recognition is well deserved. DSPs are on the frontlines, supporting people with disabilities to live full, meaningful and active lives in the community. They have a tremendous impact on the people and families they support, as well as on the social and economic health of local communities across Illinois, the country and the world. Like our teachers, police, firefighters and nurses DSPs provide essential services that make our cities and towns better places to live and work. Yet, most of us are unaware of the critical work DSPs do every day.

DSPs are called upon to support almost every aspect of a person's life. DSPs are responsible for the health, safety and well-being of the people they support. They empower persons with disabilities to live full, meaningful and active lives by encouraging independence, inclusion and individuality. DSPs assist individuals to live, work and volunteer in the community, enhance their skills and gain new experiences, make choices, stay connected to friends and family, have fun in the community, maintain jobs and do all of the everyday activities that make up a full life. To the people they support, DSPs are equal parts mentor, teacher, friend, facilitator, advocate, coach, champion and problem solver. Through their support DSPs make it possible for people to live the lives they want the same as everybody else, regardless of their disabilities.

We expect a lot from our DSPs, and we're going to be expecting even more soon. Illinois is on the verge of enacting sweeping reforms to its Medicaid Waiver that will do nothing less than transform services for it citizens with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Illinois is poised to scrap its rigid, 'one size fits all' service delivery system of the past 30 years. In its place they intend to implement a highly flexible, person centered system focused on providing people choice, with real options of providers and services, full access to the community and fully integrated, competitive employment options.

These reforms represent an unprecedented and welcome change for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities living in Illinois. But, they're just words on paper until put into action. It is our DSPs who will be on the leading edge of carrying out that important work. Although this will place new demands on DSPs as they are required to navigate a new regulatory environment and take on vastly greater responsibilities, they are up to the task. They are the ones, after all, who built the community-based system of care from the ground up. The question isn't can our DSPs adapt to the change that's coming. The question is, will our Governor and lawmakers support our DSPs in their work by finally stepping up to the plate and investing in their success?

An increase in the salaries of Direct Support workers in the community is long-overdue. Recruitment and retention of qualified, dedicated staff members is the key to providing quality services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Illinois and across the nation. Yet, for the past 10 years, the state has failed to adequately invest in its DSP workforce.

Even as the rest of the country has embraced the necessity to increase wages for workers in the retail and fast food industry, here in Illinois the pleas of DSPs to raise their wages have been all but ignored by our political leaders. It's time they started listening, because if nothing is done and soon, there won't be a community system of care to reform.

Driven by years of stagnant wages, there is a very real shortage of DSPs in Illinois. Community providers are reporting DSP turnover and vacancy rates at all-time highs and the results have dire consequences. High turnover and vacancy rates are disruptive, interfere with continuity of care and jeopardize the basic safety and well-being of the people being served in the community.

If our leaders truly want a better life for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Illinois, then their highest priority must be to raise the base salary levels of our DSPs to stem the tide of staff vacancies and stabilize our DSP workforce. DSPs carry the community system of care on their shoulders. Without a substantial investment in the form of base rate increases, something that hasn't happened in 10 years, the current crisis will only deepen until finally, the community system of care splinters at its core.

Our Direct Support Professionals are quite simply the heart and soul, and backbone of Search. There is no other job at Search that has a greater impact on the people and families we are proud to serve. The important work they do supporting people to live full, meaningful and active lives in the community is the foundation of our mission. Through their dedication, compassion, creativity and teamwork they bring that mission to life each and every day. They make an incredible difference in the lives of the 600 people and families served by Search, and thousands more across the state.

Now is the time for Governor Rauner's administration and the leadership of his Department of Human Services and lawmakers in both parties to step forward with a "turnaround agenda" for our DSPs, and raise their base wages by at least $1.00 an hour each year over the next three years.

John Lipscomb, CEO
Beth Valukas, Executive Director
Search, Inc.

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