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Advocates: Caregivers need a little more care

Edwards Center and other nonprofits want their staffs better paid, better trained

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici visits Dick Bech at  and his wife, Sharon, right, who live with their daughter, Kim, at their home at the Edwards Center at Aloha.Lori Kenney, a residential manager with Edwards Center Inc., said her coworkers love working with adults with developmental disabilities, but many leave the profession because the money is almost always better in another field.

“There’s been some staff who’ve gone to work for the county ... making as much as our managers do,” she said. “It’s hard for a lot of them to grow with the company.”

Jessica Leitner, executive director at the Aloha-based Edwards Center, and peers whose agencies provide direct-care services for people with disabilities are working to change the plight of their workforce. They are promoting a campaign dubbed 'Value the Work, Raise the Wage.'

To get there, they want to add more training, increase wages and generally “professionalize” the job, much as neighboring Washington and California have done.

Direct-care workers are frontline providers who give medications, help with toileting, ensure safety, assist with work and leisure opportunities, and provide a myriad of other services to some of the state’s most vulnerable residents. But many haven’t seen a raise in seven years and the annual turnover rate is as high as 80 percent in some parts of Oregon.TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici talks with Dr. Jean Edwards, founder of the Edwards Center, in the room of Kim Bech, who shares a home with her parents, Dick and Sharon.

“This is a complicated, technical job that someone is going to make $10 an hour doing,” Leitner told Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, who toured the Aloha site on Monday and would like to find a way to help direct-care workers.

Leitner and her colleagues also are speaking with state legislators to push for increased state funding in the industry, which is largely paid for with tax support. They also want to work with community colleges to establish training programs for their workers, something akin to (but maybe not quite as comprehensive as) a certified nursing assistant educational program.

Christine Burnett, executive director of the Oregon Rehabilitation Association, said some direct-care agencies have simply had to shut down because they can’t keep staff or afford to deliver care with limited funding. Their clients often end up in state care, which is more expensive for taxpayers and might offer a lower quality of life for clients.

“It’s something that’s bringing the system to its knees right now,” Burnett told Bonamici.

Leitner said that about a third of direct-care workers earn so little — about $23,000 per year for full-time work — that they also rely on welfare or food assistance just to survive. Many are single parents who work more than one job.

Leitner said Edwards Center has managed to keep wages slightly higher — starting many caregivers at $10.80 — only because they have a strong donor base.

But rising costs of living, including skyrocketing rents, often eat away that extra dollar or two quickly.

“This is in a lot of ways a dead-end job, even though a lot of people love the work,” she said. “There isn’t a big draw here for people, and we want to change that.”

Leitner said she welcomes Oregon’s increasing minimum wage in that it will force the wages higher for her agency’s nearly 300 employees, many of whom manage the nonprofit’s many group homes serving adults with disabilities in Washington and Clackamas counties. Including among those is an innovative, donation-funded complex being developed in phases at the Aloha site to house adults with disabilities and their elderly parents together. Bonamici toured two of the open units and met with residents.

But history tells Leitner that caregiver wages won’t be funded well enough to be over the new minimums, meaning it will continue to be difficult to recruit and retain workers.

“It’s a workforce issue and a challenge for our country,” Bonamici said after the meeting, noting that people who care for the elderly, children and the mentally ill need similar support. “Hopefully, we can work together on elevating the professionalism” of direct-care work.