Aberdeen American News Article

For Aspire staff, the reward is caring for clients, not modest paychecks

by Shannon Marvel

Published in the Aberdeen American News on Sunday, July 15th 2018 

kari and richie.jpg
Kari Reams, a staff member with Aspire, left, talks and sings with Richard Yellow Earrings in a group home Thursday. Reams said the close interaction helps calm Yellow Earrings, who is blind. American News photo by John Davis taken 7/12/2018

Sue Wente has been working at Aspire as a direct support professional for 15 years and can't imagine leaving her job for another career, despite the pay.

She said she started as a part-time employee in 2003 at $7 an hour.

Today, she's making $13.43 an hour — about $28,000 a year.

That's for working closely with sometimes vulnerable clients who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.

"We do it all. We refill their medications, help them with their hygiene, laundry, take them to their doctor's appointments, help them with their behaviors, go shopping with them, we take them to the zoo — just about everything they do we help them with doing," Wente said.

She's not complaining.

Wente knows that her career, while underappreciated when judged by finances, makes a difference in the lives of many people.

Picking up shifts and working overtime have become the norm for her, she said. She's seen many other direct support professionals come and go, but said she could never leave the people she cares for on a daily basis.

"It affects their moods. You can tell," Wente said of Aspire clients when a long-time worker leaves due to burnout or low wages.

Aspire continues its work despite staffing problems. But the nonprofit agency's director said the shortage caused in part by meager pay is a crisis statewide.

Jennifer Gray said Aspire has a staff shortage of 25 workers with 23 of those positions being full-time. There are 125 staff on payroll, including "floats," which are people who might be able to fill in if needed but are not on a set schedule.

"If we were fully staffed, we would better be able to serve and meet the needs of the participants that we already have.

"We have a (licensed practical nurse) position that's open, we have an opening in our business administration office, but primarily those are our direct support professionals. That's obviously where our greatest need is. We're no different from any of the other providers in South Dakota (in) that this is a profession that is difficult to recruit," Gray said.

Aspire budgeted for about 137 jobs this year.

The starting wage for a direct support professional at Aspire is $11.25 an hour. The average wage for the agency at large hovers around $12 per hour, Gray said.

The Aspire Board of Directors approved raises of 35 cents an hour last year, she said.

"Right now, we have employees that are working a lot of overtime hours, we have supervisors that are salaried that are working direct support shifts. If the overnight isn't filled, guess who's doing it? All those hours, that results in burnout. They're doing it because they know people need it. They're doing it because they care," Gray said.

She said 82 percent of the agency's revenue comes from Medicaid, which means Aspire relies heavily on funding from the state and federal governments.

Since the 2008 recession, the federal government has tried to minimize Medicaid entitlements, Gray said. And in 2011, during Gov. Dennis Daugaard's first year in office, he ordered across-the-board budget cuts in the state. To Aspire, the cut was 4.5 percent, she said.

Since then, state funding increases have come from small inflationary boosts and one-time monies because of ongoing budget concerns, Gray said.

Until there's long-term funding approved for human service agencies like Aspire, wages are likely to remain stagnant, she said.

Aspire direct support professional Jennifer Howell, right, helps Arlene Dye look at a photo album in an Aberdeen group home Thursday. American News photo by John Davis taken 7/12/2018

For Jen Howell, who has been working at Aspire for 16 years, there's little that could persuade her to leave her job.

Howell said she makes $13.60 an hour. Both she and Wente recently got 50-cent raises thanks to state funding that was allocated in the last year for nonadministrative Aspire staff.

Howell said the people who still work for Aspire are dedicated to the job. The low wages do not reflect the skill needed to work with people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Gray said additional money to increase pay would likely have to come from the state.

"We would love to see any initial funding boost to be recommended by our governor then supported by the Legislature. The solution, it all doesn't come down to money, but let's be honest, it's difficult for providers like us to compete in a highly competitive labor market, and that does take competitive wages to attract employees and retain them."

mike and doug.jpg
Doug DeVoss, left, plays a game with Aspire staff member Michael Melius Thursday in a group home in Aberdeen. American News photo by John Davis taken 7/12/2018.

State Sen. Al Novstrup, R-Aberdeen, echoed Gray's comments and said without more voices behind the cause, requests for additional funding fall to the wayside.

But if nothing is done to provide Aspire and agencies like it with more money, a crisis is inevitable, he said.

"A really small group of people understand what Aspire does. Things happen in budgets because people step up and say this is a priority," Novstrup said.

"If it gets slightly worse, we're in deep trouble. If it stays where it is, we're in deep trouble. Unemployment is 2 to 3 percent, which means everyone is employed and everyone is pursuing easier, better-paying jobs. And Aspire is not an easy job and it doesn't pay enough. The work is hard and the pay is low," he said.

Public support for raising teacher pay is what made it a budgeting priority in recent years, Novstrup said. The same thing needs to happen for Aspire.

A few years ago, more money was also allocated for a road crisis in the state. But everybody understood the problem because everybody drives on roads, Novstrup said. That's not the case for agencies like Aspire.

"This problem is not as visible, and that makes it more of a challenge," he said.

kari and arlene.jpg
Kari Reams, a staff member with Aspire, center, assists Nancy Duenwald as they make their way outside of the group home as staff member Sue Wente, back right, talks with Richard Yellow Earrings. Arlene Dye, right, looks for something in a storage cube. American News photo by John Davis taken 7/12/2018
tj myers