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DACs ask MN lawmakers for wage increase

Wadena County staff members work with clothing at a DAC facility in Sebeka. The staff performs a variety of jobs at several locations in Wadena County. Some have been with DAC for more than 30 years. Photo provided

People with developmental disabilities often have great personalities and a zest for life, but in some places in Minnesota they have to put up with a lot of change among their care providers.

And that's not good for anyone.

The problem is that pay at developmental achievement centers and residential group homes across Minnesota is not keeping up with pay increases in other fields, including the fast food industry.

Sylvia Silvers, executive director of the Wadena County DAC, said some of the 18 employees have been on the job for more than 30 years.

"We're out every single day," Silvers said.

Silvers has been aware for some time that her staff would like a boost in their wages to meet cost of living expenses.

"I sure don't blame them," said Silvers, who has put in almost 32 years with the DAC.

The average wage of Wadena DAC employees is $11.15. The starting wage is $9.70.

The Wadena County DAC operates thrift stores in Sebeka and Verndale. They also have a larger building in Sebeka that is dedicated to Senior, Social and Vocational Services. Wadena DAC employees, who range between the ages of 22 and 80, are engaged in several area communities. They work at the school and Rife Stop and Shop in Sebeka, Tri-County Health Care in Wadena, the city hall in Menahga and they do the cleaning at several churches around the county.

"They are good people and they are really dedicated to what they do," Silvers said in praising the Wadena DAC staff. "As far as our clients are concerned, it is good to have the continuity and loyalty of our staff."

The Becker County DAC in Detroit Lakes is fortunate in that it has relatively low turnover among its 23 employees, said Executive Director Chad Baethke. "We are one of the fortunate few that have a lot of long-term staff without a lot of turnover," he said.

Not all DACs are so fortunate.

The DAC in Montevideo, for example, has 11 positions and last year 10 of those 11 positions turned over, said Sherie Wallace, owner of The Wallace Group, which is lobbying the Legislature on the issue.

"People with disabilities really need that personal care, and just when they get to know them (staffers), they're gone," she said.

It leaves the people there without a sense of peace and stability, and "it's very difficult to run an organization when people quit frequently—they're always training new employees."

Attracting and keeping good employees can also be a challenge at some of the residential group homes in the area, Baethke said.

Stability is very important to people with disabilities, especially at their homes, and a lot of people outside the system don't understand that, he said. When there is high turnover at a group home, or if it is just chronically under-staffed, which also happens frequently, the residents suffer for it, and workers at the DAC see that when they come there in the daytime for training.

It's a statewide problem, says Mike Burke, president of the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation, which is pushing the Legislature to act this year to ensure people with disabilities get quality care.

"It is estimated that there are 8,700 unfilled direct support positions in Minnesota right now, and that number is growing as pay rates continue to lag behind other industries," he said. "It is hard to lose able, talented and passionate employees because they can earn more flipping burgers at a local fast-food shop," Burke said.

Like nursing home workers, the direct support professionals at DACs, residential group homes and extended employment agencies, including those in Detroit Lakes, are heavily dependent on a Medicaid payment formula for their wages, which now average about $12 an hour across the state, Wallace said. This region receives less, Baethke said.

The Best Life Alliance, a Minnesota coalition of advocates, is asking state legislators to increase wages by 4 percent in fiscal year 2017 (which starts in July) and another 4 percent in fiscal year 2018 for all direct support professionals, Burke said. DAC staff last received a raise of 5 percent in 2014, Wallace said.

"It's needed," Baethke said. "These folks work really hard and so many have to work a couple jobs to make it—I give them kudos for all they do."

In Wadena, Silvers has her doubts about the DAC's chances of a wage increase at this time.

"It isn't really looking too hopeful right now because they did not include it in the omnibus bill and and the governor did not include it in his budget," Silvers said.