Allen, Boyd: Invest in direct care workers

Direct care worker Daniel Petty helps Madyson, 13, get a little exercise before dinner at the Lahser Respite Home. Brandy Baker / Detroit News

Contributed by Colleen Allen and Sherri Boyd, The Detroit News

Each year, organizations like ours fight to advocate for the most vulnerable among our state residents: people with intellectual
and developmental disabilities that require the support of a direct care worker (DCW). Each year, the fight becomes more challenging. In an era of competing priorities and conflicting interests — particularly when state budget dollars are scarce — the growing need for DCW compensation can seem incredibly challenging to meet. But ignoring the ongoing crisis leaves vulnerable residents and families in the lurch, resulting in overwork and underpayment for DCWs who are trying to help them.

The consequences of the crisis are devastating.

Neurodiverse individuals face a lack of consistency in their care, as high turnover rates among underpaid workers lead to frequent changes in support teams. This instability causes anxiety and regression for a population that needs routine and familiarity. The shortage of qualified DCWs means that individuals are placed on waiting lists, leaving them completely without essential care for extended periods of time.

There are multiple state policy frameworks and concepts that are based on the availability of DCWs — and, without legislative budget action, those policies are also at risk.

For example, long-desired reforms to the auto no-fault laws and better insurance coverage to address the state’s ongoing mental health crisis are having difficulty making their way through the Legislature because the lack of available DCWs makes them incredibly challenging to implement.
Structural changes are needed to overhaul the current funding model, eliminating wasteful wage pass-throughs and directing more of each dollar to DCWs. Wage levels must also be increased.

Finally, we have to work to elevate the support of the profession more effectively, developing talent on the front end and simplifying onerous administrative burdens on the job.

The state must recognize the value of the work performed by DCWs and pay them a wage that reflects their dedication and the significance of their role. A fair and competitive wage would not only attract more skilled workers to the profession but improve the quality and consistency of care provided to special needs individuals.

Additionally, investing in training and professional development for DCWs is essential. This will not only enhance the quality of care, but also provide these workers with opportunities for career advancement and growth.

Ultimately, this crisis is a moral issue. It is about ensuring that all members of our community have access to the care and support they need to live their lives.

Michigan should lead by example and prioritize the well-being of its vulnerable populations by investing in the direct care workforce. By doing so, we can create a more just and compassionate society where our DCWs are valued, respected and fairly compensated for their vital work.

Sherri Boyd is executive director of The Arc Michigan and Colleen Allen is president and CEO of
the Autism Alliance of Michigan.