We have been hearing a lot about all the sacrifices our front-line health providers have made during this COVID-19 crisis. They have done exceptional work and gone above and beyond their typical call of duty. They are serving patients who may or may not be positive for Coronavirus. They are going through daily health screenings and extreme sanitizing procedures. They wear their PPE and put in long hours, as needed. They do all of this while still worrying about their families and loved ones.
We have not heard much about direct-care staff (also known as direct-support professionals, or DSPs) working in community-based agencies supporting individuals with disabilities. They are also going through daily health screenings. They are also sanitizing everything in sight in the homes they work in. They are wearing PPE during their entire shift (and often when they are in public, but not working). They are serving individuals who may not understand why they are no longer going to work or to their adult day facility. They are serving individuals who may be medically fragile or who may be dealing with mental health issues that are exacerbated by the current situation, or both.
Imagine you are an individual with a disability - physical, intellectual, developmental, mental health or any combination thereof. You are served by an agency like Nishna Productions. You depend on your staff for meals, medications, health and safety reasons. Your staff members are as close to family as many of you have. Your staff take you grocery shopping. They get you involved in community activities. They take you out to eat or to the movies. They help you get a job. Then, suddenly, you wake up one day to discover you aren’t allowed to do any of those things anymore. You are restricted to stay at home. Two weeks later, you wake up to discover your staff – the ones you love – are wearing masks, safety glasses and gloves every time they are around you. They clean your groceries before they are put away. They sanitize your mail before they give it to you. They keep you six feet away, when hugs used to be a normal part of the day. Imagine you are that individual with paranoia or anxiety or depression. How does this affect you? Imagine you are that individual with an intellectual disability and lack the capacity to understand that this is temporary and for your own good. How does this affect you? Imagine you are that individual with such profound physical disabilities that you still need to be fed, bathed, dressed, toileted. Your staff can’t stay six feet away. How does that affect you?
Now, imagine you are the staff to these individuals. You are tasked with keeping these individuals’ lives as routine as they were before COVID-19 struck, but that isn’t possible because nothing is the same. Despite your best efforts, residents will become restless. They get bored, too. Individuals with disabilities get frustrated because they don’t understand what’s going on, but they may lack the capacity to explain their frustration, so it exhibits itself in behaviors that you, as staff, must deal with. You must continue to feed, clean, toilet and dress the people you care for. And sanitize – everything and all the time. As staff, you also still have your family to care for and worry about. Your kids may be home and you are worried about their health and safety.
And, at least in the state of Iowa, you are doing this work in a rural area for an average of $10.94 per hour. During the COVID-19 crisis, many agencies have offered and additional $1-$3/hour. Would you do this job for $12 an hour? Certified nursing assistants make $15 per hour. Their top job duties include 1) feed, bathe and dress patients, 2) take patient vital signs, 3) serve meals, make beds and keep rooms clean, 4) set up medical equipment and assist with some medical procedures, and 5) answer calls for help and observe changes in a patient’s condition or behavior. With the exception of assisting with medical procedures, most direct-care staff do the same work. Direct-care staff also administer medication, provide transportation, schedule and attend appointments, maintain a safe, clean living environment, help with daily tasks and teach life skills.
Finally, imagine you are the family member of an adult with a disability. You have an adult son or daughter, parent or sibling who requires the care of a DSP. You trust an agency to provide that care and to hire the best DSPs out there. Your family member deserves the best care. How much is that care worth? While it might be difficult to put an actual price tag on it, I’m betting it is more than $12 an hour.
We must be an advocate for the care our most vulnerable citizens require. Please work with us to encourage our federal and state legislators to work on behalf of all direct care staff to secure additional funding for wage increases for them.