Illinois Legislative Session Ends with One Step Forward, Two Steps Back for People with Disabilities

CHICAGO – JUNE 6, 2019 – Based on the budget for the state of Illinois that passed at the end of the 2019 legislative session, a long-worsening staffing crisis is expected to deepen further for nonprofit providers of community-based services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Illinois legislators did include a small 3.5% rate increase across the state for those who run residential, day and other community programs, after more than ten years of no support from the state on those rates. Unfortunately, this support will have little effect on the statewide staffing crisis caused by low wages for frontline caregivers known as direct support professionals (DSPs).

State reimbursements for DSP wages stalled for nine years until 2017, when the They Deserve More coalition – comprising more than 80 agencies and organizations that serve people with disabilities – succeeded in securing two small raises totaling an additional $1.25 per hour. Even with these achievements, the average DSP wage was just $11.96 per hour at the beginning of 2019. This year’s 3.5% overall rate increase is likely to translate into a new average DSP wage of $12.38 per hour, depending on guidelines to be promulgated soon by the Illinois Department of Human Services.

The statewide minimum wage increase, in addition to more ambitious increases in Chicago and Cook County, will negate the gains of recent years unless the state provides sufficient funding for DSP wages to exceed the minimum wage. In 2000, DSP wage reimbursements were 93% higher than the minimum wage, but then stagnated at only 30% higher between 2010-2016. The wage differential improved to a projected 50% in 2019 thanks to action taken by Illinois legislators in recent years, but the minimum wage increase will cause this differential to fall to 34% on January 1, 2020 and then steadily deteriorate to a stunning -17% by 2025. In Chicago, the minimum wage will exceed DSP wage reimbursements as early as July 1, 2019. (Click here to view a chart showing past and projected wage data)

“These are not minimum wage jobs, caring for people with disabilities,” said Ben Stortz, president and CEO of Cornerstone Services. “It is strenuous work with long hours where you are responsible for someone’s life and wellbeing. Wages were already deplorably low, and now the good work done by state leaders for the rest of Illinois workers will unwittingly exacerbate the staffing crisis for people with disabilities as more and more DSPs leave for Amazon or Walmart or $15-an-hour fast food jobs.”

With so many DSPs reluctantly leaving for other opportunities with higher pay, people with disabilities and their families face constant change and uncertainty. Insufficient staffing can lead to dangerous, even life-threatening situations. More and more providers are forced to shut down programs and turn people away who need and deserve support.

“We are glad to get a very small piece of this year’s budget and greatly appreciate those legislators who have championed our cause in recent years,” said Kim Zoeller, president and CEO of the Ray Graham Association. “But we are so far behind, and the minimum wage legislation – which is important for many – has the unintended consequence of leaving us in more dire straits than ever. We hope and pray that our budgeteers will take this into account as they look at new revenue coming in, and we will not stop pressing until our state leaders make people with disabilities a priority.”

Other pieces of well-intended legislation will produce further unintended consequences. The legalization of recreational cannabis has already sparked a hiring surge by cannabis growers. If Chicago growers’ compensation is comparable to the $22 per hour plus benefits that was seen in Denver, then yet another for-profit industry will start drawing DSPs away from their current jobs. Increases in the gas tax and vehicle license fees will drive up expenses for the hundreds of vehicles used by nonprofits to transport the people they serve, and they will increase the cost of living for DSPs whose finances are already stretched thin.