Montana Caregivers Push for Wage Hike for Disabled Services

Caregivers for developmentally disabled earn an average starting salary of $10.14 an hour

By Matt Volz, Associated Press

HELENA — Caregivers and advocates pressed Monday for raises for 3,000 people who care for about 5,800 developmentally disabled people across Montana, while Republican lawmakers who previously rejected a similar proposal appeared ready to support this one.

The caregivers provide services for people with disabilities in their homes and in group homes by feeding them, cleaning for them, driving them to appointments and taking care of other things that they can’t do themselves. Caregivers earn an average starting salary of $10.14 an hour.

Those who testified before the House Appropriations Committee said the low wages have caused high turnover, which creates problems for the disabled who receive services from a different person every few months. Many of those who stick with their jobs qualify for public assistance because of the low pay.

Justin Harvey, a caregiver for Quality Life Concepts in Great Falls, said he has taken care of the disabled, people with traumatic brain injuries and dementia, and Alzheimer’s patients for seven years. He has a medical certification, but he earns about $3 an hour less than a person working in the deli at a grocery store chain.

“At this moment, I am struggling to take care of my wife, who also works for Quality Life Concepts, and our 2-year-old niece, who is placed in our care,” Harvey said. “Unfortunately, the state claims we make too much to receive assistance because we have the luxury of my wife’s grandmother charging us $300 to live in her basement.”

The bill by Rep. Jon Knokey, a Republican from Bozeman, would increase the average starting wage of caregivers like Harvey to $15 an hour by 2019.

More than $10 million of the wage increase would be paid for out of the state’s general fund, with an additional $20 million paid for with federal funds.

“We know we have a crisis,” Knokey said. “We can look away and pretend that it’s not happening, or we can show compassion and economic awareness and try to solve this problem.”

Funding increases have been an extremely difficult sell this legislative session as leaders in the Republican majority have sought to close a budget shortfall through spending cuts. The House rejected a previous proposal by Democratic lawmakers that would have given caregivers a $1-per-hour increase next year and a $2-per-hour increase in 2019.

One major difference between Knokey’s bill and the Democrats’ proposal is that the Democrats’ wage hike would have been for both caregivers of the developmentally disabled and the elderly. It would have cost about twice the amount in state funding to implement, compared with Knokey’s bill.

Knokey voted for the Democratic proposal, though the influential head of the subcommittee in charge of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services did not. Rep. Rob Cook, a Republican from Conrad, said during the debate last month that the cost of that proposal was too high in a difficult budget year.

But Cook changed his tune Monday. He noted the $10 million request is about three-quarters of a percentage point of the $1.35 billion in state money that already goes to the health department.

“Without this, we’re headed to the point where we won’t have capacity to take care of folks,” Cook said. “Our price controls are cutting out the customers and the clients.”

The Republican-led House Appropriations Committee advanced the bill to the House floor on an 18-4 vote.

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