JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Dawn of Hope direct support provider Tina Fields isn’t in it for the money, but she’d certainly be happy to see a proposed bump in pay for the people who serve Tennesseans with intellectual and developmental disabilities come to fruition.
“The people who do this job are very valuable,” Fields told WJHL last fall after talk of raises fell victim to COVID-induced budget cuts. “They make a huge difference in these people’s lives and they should be compensated for it.”
State Rep. David Hawk agrees. The Greeneville Republican is co-sponsoring HB 0130, which would increase the starting wage for DSPs, as they’re known, over a period of three years, bringing it to $15 by 2024.
“Right now they’re between the 10 and 11 dollar range,” Hawk said. He said that rate makes it hard for providers like Dawn of Hope and others to keep employees.
“We don’t want this just to be a job they’re going to come into, get trained and just work for six months,” Hawk said. “We want them to be able to make a career out of caring for our most fragile Tennesseans should they choose to…
“That’s really what we’re looking at is making that profession receive a comparative wage to other professions in the region.”
Fields doesn’t have children at home, so she’s able to pursue what she calls a labor of love without having to worry as much about paying the bills as some younger co-workers might.
But Dawn of Hope Executive Director Steve Cox said there aren’t enough Fields’s out there to keep agencies like his anywhere close to fully staffed.
“Lots of overtime,” he said of the current situation with workers who wear many hats and often work with clients that have behavioral issues.
“We have fewer staff and more vacancies now than we have ever had at any time in the organization’s history that I’m aware of. We’re keeping our head above water, but it’s not an easy thing.”
While the current rate may seem low, Hawk said the legislature actually provided two $1 per hour bumps in recent years, bringing it up from $8.50. While this proposal envisions a bigger bump, he said with a $1 billion budget surplus seven months into the fiscal year, now may be the time.
“I think there is a great will among my colleagues to see that wage raised,” Hawk said. He said it helps that the agencies are essentially directly reimbursed for their employees’ work — meaning the funds wouldn’t get diverted to other uses.
“This is one area where the state can make an investment where it actually gets to the end user as quickly as possible, so I feel comfortable that my colleagues and I, we want to do it. It’s just a matter of whether we can find those recurring dollars over the next two years to ensure we get to a real wage for these employees.”
The short staffing often results in employees floating between different homes to cover open shifts, Cox said — and that’s created an additional risk during the COVID pandemic.
“If one of them ends up asymptomatic but COVID positive, they drag that thing with them through six or seven houses in a week,” Cox said. “It’s been a real danger for people we support and thankfully we’ve gotten through it with minimal damage.”
Even Fields and other DSPs who’ve been at the work for years aren’t even sniffing the $15 an hour mark right now.
“You might be making eleven dollars or eleven and a quarter,” Cox said of those veteran staff. “We went so many years without getting any revenue increases from the state whatsoever, and the last few years we got a drop here and a drop there.”
The organization that represents the provider agencies, Tennessee Community Organizations (TNCO), is pushing hard for passage of HB0130 and its senate companion bill.