By Margaret Sessa-Hawkins
Tony, Chucky and Barry live in a typical suburban house in a typical suburban neighborhood. They leave for work in the morning, and come home again at the end of the day.
In the evenings Tony usually relaxes in his favorite chair, the TV on in the background, while Barry watches Westerns in his room. Chucky either watches TV with Tony, or finds tasks to do around the house.
To lead these lives though, Tony, Chucky and Barry need help. “The guys”, as their support staff collectively refer to them, all have varying degrees of developmental disabilities.
They live in a group home paid for by the state.
Their “work” is a day program of individualized activities they attend with other people with developmental disabilities. And in their house they have Charlene Smith-Scott and Jared Knight-Hopkins, the support staff who help them with their daily functions.
Bill aims to keep up with minimum
How much to pay support staff like Smith-Scott and Knight-Hopkins is the subject of SB890, sponsored by Sen. Thomas Mac Middleton, head of the Finance Committee. The bill aims to ensure that the compensation for support staff always remains at least 50% above the minimum wage.
Middleton and other advocates fear that if the salary is not kept at a certain level, organizations will have trouble attracting workers.
Listening to Smith-Scott and Knight-Hopkins detail their work, it’s easy to see why. Their job is demanding.
“I’m the house counselor, so I run the house,” Smith-Scott said. “I usually get up at five in the morning, but I’m officially on duty at seven. I get the guys ready for the bus, I feed them their breakfast, get them their medication, take them to any appointments they have, and then take them to the day program…
After that I might have to go to the office, pick up supplies and medication, go to the market, get the food, go to Ace Hardware, get the trash bags. Whatever is needed for the house, that’s my responsibility… Then I come back in the evening, start preparing dinner, and we start the evening routine.”
The evening routine is a responsibility she shares with Knight-Hopkins.
“We get them off the bus,” he says. “Bring them in, get them something to drink, help them eat, use the bathroom, bathe, and then get ready to do it again.”
Smith-Scott and Knight-Hopkins work for The Arc of Baltimore, a support organization that provides care for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Smith-Scott has been working for The Arc for 20 years, and was just named the 2014 employee of the year. Jared has only been working with “the guys” for two years, but he is still passionate about his job.
“I met the guys and it was just like, this is somewhere I need to be,” Knight-Hopkins says. “I felt like I wanted to be here. This is a wonderful place to be. I get up every day, and I look forward to coming here.”
Care above and beyond
However, Smith-Scott and Knight-Hopkins go far beyond helping them through their day-to-day activities. A few weeks ago, Smith-Scott came to the house on a Saturday to take Barry out so he could learn to drive a scooter. Knight-Hopkins continually called the house while he was away for a month on his update training just to check in.
After spending even a short amount of time with Smith-Scott and Jared it is clear that they love their job, and are dedicated to providing the best care possible.
“They are people,” Knight-Hopkins says. “So why should they be deprived of the same things you and I are used to? I just don’t think that they should be deprived of anything, for any reason.”
Smith-Scott and Knight-Hopkins worry that if Middleton’s bill doesn’t pass there will be high staff turnover, which hurts residents who get attached to the staff. They worry about workers having to work multiple jobs, and not being able to give their full attention to the individuals they help. Most of all though, they worry organizations will not be able to attract quality staff.
“When you come and work here, there’s a standard that needs to be met,” Smith-Scott says. “I expect a certain caliber of person to be here. Because my number one goal is to advocate for the guys I’ve been servicing. I think about if it was my uncle or my cousin or my brother, then I would want quality people taking care of them, and I would want them to be paid their value.”
Valuing the job
Smith-Scott points out a framed letter from the mother of a house resident who passed away. In the letter the mother talks about how grateful she is to the support workers, about how much they did for her son. Knight-Hopkins talks about how the guys — and others like them — should have access to the best possible care.
When Charlene and Jared speak about receiving higher pay it’s not in terms of their own personal situation, but rather about attaching the right value to a job they feel deserves respect.
“We matter,” Smith-Scott says. “I know that for a fact. It is very important that we are here and that we service them. I take my job seriously. It’s the most important job ever.”