By Daniel Menefee
As Maryland’s minimum wage rises to $15 by 2025 so do concerns that direct support staff serving Maryland’s developmentally disabled will make a career change to McDonald’s, where working the drive-thru pays almost the same.
“Support staff wear many hats” and the work is stressful, said Kent Center’s Executive Director Karine Ireland at a legislative breakfast on June 28 to commemorate nearly 50 years of serving clients in Kent County. “The staff needs increased training and increased pay.”
Low wages continue to plague recruitment and retention, which caregiver organizations in Maryland have called a “crisis.” They say starting wages must exceed the minimum wage by a wider margin than currently exists to recruit and retain a workforce.
There are over 200 organizations in Maryland like Kent Center that serve 25,000 developmentally disabled; they rely almost exclusively on Medicaid and state dollars that flow through the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Administration to pay support staff.
High early turnover
A third of new DDA support staff in the state quit after six months and nearly half resign after one year. The attrition is the result of high stress and low wages, according to the Maryland Association of Community Services, a group that advocates for caregiver organizations.
Courtney Williams, administration director for Kent Center, said their retention rate was close to the state average. Ireland said all support staff require emergency medical training and certification to administer medications. They also undergo extensive training in conflict resolution and mentoring — in order to provide the job coaching and life skills clients need to integrate into the community.
The breakfast included a tour of the facility on Scheeler Road where job readiness and mentoring programs are run. There are currently 12 clients employed in the community with the help of the center’s Supported Employment Services.
Delegates. Jay Jacobs, R-Kent, and Steve Arentz, R-Queen Anne’s, attended the breakfast and blamed the rising minimum wage on the chronic staff shortages in DDA funded facilities.
Impact of minimum wage hike
“A $15 minimum wage actually hurt this place, it didn’t help it at all,” Jacobs said. “That $15 may sound good in the outside world but it actually harmed the workers in the pay scales.”
Arentz and Jacobs voted against the $15 wage hike that passed in Annapolis this year.
But caregiver organizations lobbied in Annapolis for “the fight for $15” and asked for a 7% bump in DDA’s budget. The legislature cut the request back to 3.5% for 2020 and 4% for years 2021-2026.
As the minimum wage rises, entry-level workers in 2025 will make about 60 cents more than new hires at McDonald’s, the difference could be even less if the burger chain is paying more than the minimum wage by then. See figure 1.
The average starting wage in DDA facilities is $10.50 to 11.00. The Kent Center’s starting wage is $10.66 — just 56 cents above the current minimum wage, a gap of just 5%.
The staff turnover over at the Kent Center is 22%, which is slightly lower than the state average of 25%. The center needs 50 more recruits by February to run programs at the facility and staff 14 full-time residences in the community. The center currently has 150 support staff for roughly 80 clients.
In 2006 the reimbursement rate was 69% above the state minimum wage; this year the gap has narrowed to 19%. But new employees are actually paid much closer to the minimum wage because providers, mostly community nonprofits, must reward employees with tenure at a higher wage to maintain retention.
The state tried to address the gap in the Minimum Wage Act of 2014 and tied the reimbursement rate to the minimum wage. The act came with a mandate that set the reimbursement rate to a level above the state’s minimum wage in order to attract and maintain the workforce.
“The current rate is not enough when you can [start] at Giant earning $12.35,” said Laura Howell, executive director of Maryland Association of Community Services in a brief phone interview. She said the vacancy rate was compromising the safety of staff and clients in facilities like the Kent Center.
Ireland spoke of one success story at the center where a client landed a better paying job than the support staff who trained him. Williams said there were other instances where staffers quit after learning they could earn more where their former clients had found work.
The workforce shortage has also raised concerns among aging parents whose children rely on the Kent Center.
“If I’m not there or my husband is not there, someone has to be,” said Linda Cades, whose 40-year-old son has relied on the Kent Center for 20 years. “We need to get good people to do this. We need to know that our kids are safe because they are extremely vulnerable.”
She said the center provided the socialization her son needed to know people with and without disabilities. Her son was also able to perform work, participating in the contract mailing and shredding services the center offers.
In their 70s, Cades said she and her husband worry about their son’s care after they pass on.
“I need to know that when I’m not here to run interference he’s going to be OK, in a place where people care about him,” she said. “Wages have been so low over the years that it extremely difficult to recruit, train and retain people.” She said the staff vacancies were putting greater burdens on the existing staff doing “very difficult work” for as low as $21,000 a year.
The Kent Center receives 99% of its revenue from DDA. Only 1% comes from private donations, said Kent Center Chairman Randy Cooper. He is also the founder of Radcliffe Corporate Services in Chestertown.
Cooper said a $500 donation earns a $250 tax credit on the Maryland tax return.