By Gregory Miller
President/CEO Penn-Mar Human Services
I’m a firm believer that advocacy is not a sprint. It’s a marathon requiring never-ending education and persistence.
Seats in the legislature are continually turning over and new lawmakers come into Annapolis or Harrisburg with little or no understanding of the issues that confront providers of human services.
At the state government level, I can certainly appreciate the financial challenges and huge needs our lawmakers are confronted with on a daily basis. Part of the challenge is that we have a care system that is not funded to the point where it can provide adequate wages for Direct Support Professionals (DSPs), who are the backbone of the service delivery system.
This calls us to be passionate advocates for the individuals with disabilities we support. It becomes our responsibility to help folks understand that a core function of state government – our sole source of funding (with Federal matching funds) — is to provide us the financial resources we need to pay our DSPs a living wage. For without their services, we cease to exist. And unlike other entities funded through state and federal funds, we have no ability to raise our tuition or fees.
Absent adequate funding, there will continue to be significant staff turnover and vacancies which is why we keep referring to the DSP wage issue as a “national workforce crisis.”
As I write this, I am pleased to report that the Maryland Senate and House Appropriations Committee made good on their promise to restore 3.5 percent funding for community services, mandated by the Minimum Wage Act of 2014. We are just waiting on Governor Hogan’s signature to make it official.
You may recall that the Governor’s fiscal year 2019 budget, announced in January, allotted only a 1 percent rate increase, which would have endangered the stability of an already fragile direct support workforce that is beset by low wages and high turnover.
March is Developmental Disability Awareness Month and we at Penn-Mar are doing everything in our power to keep the spotlight on inadequate DSP wages.
This victory is in no small part due to the efforts of Penn-Mar family members, self-advocates, and staff, and hundreds of other Maryland advocates, who on February 22nd descended on Annapolis for “Developmental Disabilities Day at the Legislature.”
In Pennsylvania, we have continued to advocate for a pathway to a living wage for DSPs.
At Pennsylvania Advocacy and Resources for Autism and Intellectual Disability (PAR), where I serve on the board, our relentless advocacy resulted in 7,000 calls to the Governor’s office demanding attention to the DSP wage issue. Governor Wolf and the legislature took a bold step to increase resources during last year’s budget, but the path must continue forward over the next few years to see a true impact; this year we are not currently seeing this being advanced.
Persistence is the name of the game and we plan to continually advocate in Maryland and Pennsylvania, along with our partners at Maryland Association of Community Services (MACS) and PAR, to ensure adequate funding dedicated to DSP wages. We at Penn-Mar are pro-actively training and encouraging our families and constituents to join us in our advocacy efforts.
It is vital to understand that we are not simply advocating for dollars; we are advocating for people. But you can’t divorce the two. So to me it’s imperative that our advocacy efforts continue to help our decision makers understand what is at risk here: a critical workforce, without whom the community at large is at threat.
Help us keep up the good fight!