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N.J. caregivers earn less than Walmart employees, and that's wrong

Sun Sentinel - 6/23/2018

Pitiful wages combined with often back-breaking labor have combined to create a public-health disaster affecting patients, home-care professionals and the families who desperately depend on them.

The growing crisis affects 22,000 New Jersey residents with developmental or intellectual disabilities, whose ability to function would be severely impaired if the shortage of direct support professionals (known in the trade as DSPs) continues to worsen.

Yet despite the crucial role they play - helping disabled individuals live as successful members of their communities - these professionals take home an average starting salary is $10.50 per hour.

That's less than the starting salary at Costco ($11.50 an hour) and Walmart ($11 an hour).

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It's no surprise that in New Jersey, nearly half of all families of direct-care workers rely on some form of public assistance, namely Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Many of them juggle two jobs or more, leaving them exhausted before they ever leave home in the morning.

No shock, either, that these vital workers are deserting the field in droves.

This means the need for direct support professionals exceeds the number currently working in the field. An advocacy organization, Coalition for a DSP Living Wage, predicts the shortage will only get more acute.

Already agencies providing home health-care workers report a 44 percent turnover rate and a 20 percent vacancy rate, leaving families in turmoil, scrambling for skilled hands to help bathe, feed, dress and keep their loved ones safe.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, who has declared the situation a priority for him, is looking for a long-term solution.

The South Jersey Democrat battled to include $20 million in last year's state budget, which served as a one-time salary boost for DSPs. Now he and other legislators are negotiating a compromise to this year's budget in hopes of effecting sustainable change.

The coalition has set a reasonable goal: to raise DSP salaries by $1.25 an hour every year for five years, bringing the starting hourly wage to $16.75 by 2022.

For Gail Frizzell, mother of a 32-year-old with severe disabilities, the issue is personal.

Her daughter, Lauren, cannot walk or talk. She cannot feed herself or dress herself. She has regular seizures.

But the five angels who take care of her in shifts allow her to live independently - and by extension, allow the family to keep going.

Frizzell says she and other aging parents like her are haunted by the prospect of a future when the supply of health-care providers dries up. Already she has faced the dilemma of finding a replacement when one long-time aide retired. The search took six months.

The work DSPs do every day requires a high level of skill, training and responsibility. Their salaries should reflect that reality.

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