JOLIET – Trinity Services completed renovations last year on a group home in Joliet but opted not to open it because the social services agency cannot keep staff to serve its clients with development disabilities.
Skilled staff that might otherwise serve people with disabilities are leaving for better pay in warehousing and retail, said Art Dykstra, executive director for New Lenox-based Trinity.
“I have said no to quite a few parents,” Dykstra said. “I tell them, ‘As much as I would like to help you, I’m not sure I can do right by your son or daughter because I have to worry about staffing for the people I have now.’ ”
Dykstra and other advocates for the disabled say funding problems that have lingered for years are worsening amid a state budget crisis that has lingered since the new fiscal year started back in July.
“It’s definitely gotten worse,” Dykstra said. “We’re talking about jobs paying in the range of $8.50 to $10 an hour.”
Trinity has 640 direct-support staff positions – the people who work directly with clients in group homes. Dykstra said 160 are not filled.
Entry-level workers typically make minimum wage. Veteran staff have not received pay raises in several years.
The situation could be coming to a head with a court monitor’s report last month finding that the state is not complying with a 2011 consent decree that gives eligible people with developmental disabilities a right to community-based housing as an alternative to state institutions.
The report indicates that a “staffing crisis” tied to state funding received by agencies such as Trinity Services is slowing down access to community-based housing.
Among other things, the Jan. 7 report noted a conference call with 68 agencies, with “not one provider stating a willingness to consider expanding services while experiencing an unprecedented ‘staffing crisis’ due to inadequate funding of wages ... .”
A spokeswoman from the Illinois Department of Human Services declined to comment.
Agencies such as Trinity Services and Joliet-based Cornerstone Services depend on state funding to provide group homes and other services to people with development disabilities.
“It’s been about nine years since we’ve had an increase in our base funding. That’s the crux of the problem,” Cornerstone CEO Ben Stortz said.
Cornerstone has been building or renovating one or two houses a year and has 41 group homes, mostly in Will County. This year, Cornerstone will open no new homes in Will County, Stortz said.
“We would have served 18 people, but we just can’t hire staff,” Stortz said. “We’re going to open one house in Kankakee because we’re able to hire the staff there. But we’re not going to open any new houses in Will County.”
Stortz said Cornerstone had a turnover of 35 percent of its employees last year – people who left jobs at group homes for positions at warehouses, stores and, ironically, state institutions for the developmentally disabled that pay nearly twice as much as the $9.30 hourly wage that the average direct-care worker in a group home makes.
‘Pay is an issue’
Nikita Ingram said she took a pay cut more than a year ago when she left a job in child care for a minimum wage position with Trinity Services. She makes up for the drop in hourly wage by working more hours.
Ingram works at a group home on Nicholson Street in Joliet, where tasks include providing medications to the four residents, helping wheelchair-confined individuals shower and dress, and applying what staff call “positive psychology” when clients become aggressive or despondent.
“I like the work, and enjoy coming to work,” Ingram said. “It didn’t take long to fall in love with the guys. The pay is an issue.”
Ingram has two children of her own.
“It is hard to make ends meet,” she said. “I try to make it work as best I can.”
Wolanda McCullum is the team leader for the Trinity house on Nicholson Street and others. She said it is not unusual for her to go home after a full shift and come back in the evening for chores that require two people, such as helping clients take showers, because an employee has called in sick and there is no one available to cover.
New employees, starting at minimum wage, are particularly hard to keep, McCullum said.
“It gets frustrating because we get good staff,” she said. “We have people who say, ‘I like it here. I love the guys. But I have to go because of the pay.’ ”