Today, the direct-support professionals providing care in the homes of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have a lower starting wage than the person helping you check out your groceries or take your fast food order. As caregivers that commute from Tacoma and Auburn to support our clients in Kent, we love our jobs. But the current low wages just don’t make sense and we hope that the Legislature will fund a Medicaid increase so that we can start catching up to the rising cost-of-living in our region.
We come from different backgrounds, but we have the same love for our work. Judy serves six clients and has been a caregiversince moving from Kenya in 2017, where she worked as a pharmacy assistant. Ronald has lived in Tacoma since 2001 and has worked as a direct-support professional for five years, today serving five clients in Kent and two in Tacoma. Together, we are proud of the support that we provide and the level of enduring compassion and patience that it requires.
We all live in a world full of difficult jobs, but caregivers have a pretty tough one. We provide foundational care that allows our clients to live in their own homes. That means that we cook their meals, bathe them, manage their medications, take them on walks, find them entertainment and do their grocery shopping. Depending on their needs, we may help them get out of their bed into their wheelchair or just help them change positions regularly so that they are comfortable. We support individuals that are nonverbal and have autism, so we work hard to understand their personal sign language so that we know when they want to go outside or stay inside. We try and protect them from financial scams, pushed by those who target vulnerable people.
During the pandemic, we have helped guard them against infection and sanitize their homes daily. Washington has long put off investing in a wage increase for direct support professionals, but these last few years have made that gap especially painful.
More than 99% of our clients rely on Medicaid for their care, which means that unless the Legislature increases its Medicaid investment, our wages cannot keep up with the ever escalating cost-of-living in our region. It used to be that direct-support professionals in our state earned 23.7% above minimum wage, but today that has fallen to only 5%.
Washington is almost dead last in keeping up and we can see it in the very high turnover of almost 50% annually among our colleagues. This high turnover is challenging for all of the clients that we support, as those with intellectual and developmental disabilities are forced to constantly meet new people for support. And in turn, it requires patience and time to learn the unique needs of each client so that they are receiving the best possible support.
On behalf of the 12,000 caregivers serving 4,600 clients statewide, we are not asking for anything complicated. Right now, the average starting wage for direct-support professionals is $15.26 and we are hoping that the Legislature will increase its investment in Medicaid so that the starting wage can be raised to $18-$20 per hour with a cost-of-living adjustment to keep up with inflation. This will make it a little bit easier to afford gas for those of us with long commutes and will make rent or a mortgage a little easier to manage. For many of us, it may even mean only having to work one job instead of two or three. It will also help supported-living providers hire and keep caregivers longer during this incredibly competitive time for good workers, improving our ability to provide consistent support for those in our care.
Nobody is signing up for this work to get rich and our days with our clients can be far from easy. But at the end of each day with our clients, if we get a hug or a smile, it can just make your heart melt. We share a fundamental humanity with our clients. We ask that the Legislature recognize the value of this humanity and increase its Medicaid investment in supported living.