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Professional Wages for Supports:  Part 2

Mapping a course towards professionalizing supports will be a challenge.
Mapping a course towards professionalizing supports will be a challenge.

Governments perceive the world in numbers.  Agencies see people.  A clash in ideology is inevitable even when the goal of having awesome supports is shared.  So how to begin addressing the problem of professionalizing wages for DSW’s (Direct Support Workers)?

Step 1:  Reduce Demand

The extraordinary demand for support services is the number 1 barrier against professionalizing direct support wages.  There are so many people that need help with supports and the government can’t afford to grow supports for everyone AND increase salaries.

Humans are the most valuable part of an organization, which also makes them the most expensive part of an organization.  Salaries are almost always the largest cost in any business.  The government knows this.  They also know that the demand for supports is only going to go up with an aging population.  Thousands of Canadians are currently languishing on wait lists.  Thus the reluctance to fund professional salaries like they do for nurses, doctors, and other social wellness related fields.  They see exponential cost that isn’t sustainable.  With a dwindling tax base and huge deficits racking up national and provincial debt, it’s not hard to see why the government is reluctant to fund professional salaries for DSW’s.

The solution is not as simple as asking for more.  A responsible government balances its budget.  All of us, including people supported, benefit from adopting sustainable methods of governance. It is important to abandon the extraction mindset.

Before moving on to ideas on how to reduce demand; let me clarify two points.

  1. Agencies deserve more and better funding simply because they need it.  Of that there is no question.  In a perfect world, the moral argument of the well being of people supported would be enough.  Unfortunately we live in a world that measures in extremely limited dollars and cents.  Getting great at arguing how we’re cost effective as a professional field is a valuable sister strategy to emphasizing the social benefits of community living.
  2. Reducing demand does not mean losing jobs.  Great supports are high in demand.  We’re currently under-serving our communities.  Taking some of the pressure off will allow agencies to focus their unique skills on the people who need them most.  No worries on suddenly being out of a job.  There is no magical wand to be waved that would suddenly see DSW’s out of a job or their skills moot on the market.

So where to start?  How do we reduce demand?

In Ontario an estimated 12,000 people are on the wait list for support, despite a commitment of over $620 million dollars to a $1.15 billion dollar industry over the last 10 years.  Of the 12,000, only 7,300 actually need support.  That’s almost 5000 people who shouldn’t be on the list!

What’s important to see in this example is that planning support is an important part of reducing demand.  Who needs what, when, and how it will be delivered?

Australia has radically altered their supports by;

  • letting people choose the types of support that makes sense for them with the funding that is available to them

This means giving people the ability to use their support funding to collaborate with their family and friends.  With a more flexible structure a person could choose to work with a sibling and renovate a private home with an accessible apartment.  The sibling subsidizes their living costs so they can maximize one-to-one supports of a highly qualified DSW.  If they don’t need a specific type of support, they don’t have to use it.  They system is more efficient and personalized.

  • embracing one time costs that are beneficial and cost effective in the long term; such as accessibility renovations and assistive technology

This means helping people overcome barriers to caregivers providing support alongside DSW’s in a sustainable way.  For example, buying an accessible vehicle could allow a person the independence they need to have a job since they don’t need someone to drive them to and from home.  Another person might choose to live at home longer and get a lift system installed.  A third might buy a tablet that allows them to communicate with people without specialized training.

Their caregivers benefit too!  Caregivers are not support workers.  They are persons providing support to a person as a friend or family member.  In Canada, 64% of caregivers reported physical strain, 34% emotional stress, 60% lack of time for other family and friends, and 27% reported strong financial hardship.  One of the most destructive forces in person’s life is the erosion of their natural supports through the stress of delivering supports.  Supporting caregivers means fewer hospital visits, reduced mental health problems, and a stronger economy.

Obviously not everyone would choose to live with their parents, friends or siblings.  Nor should they.  But for those who do, they subsidize government cost.  Caregivers who own their own home pay for that home’s upkeep, its mortgage, taxes, and hydro bill.  Those saved costs create a larger funding pool.  Which is what is needed for professionalizing support.

There will always be a need for DSW’s.  In Ontario, 80% of parents of people with disabilities are between the age of 70-79.  Adopting strategies like Australia’s, gives dollars back to the government that can be reinvested into professional wages.  Creating transparency around funding allows people supported and caregivers to work alongside supports to create creative, flexible, and personalized support strategies.  This reduces wait lists and the current anxiety from caregivers anxious to ‘get ahead.’

Next article I’ll be discussing Step 2: exposing hidden costs in our current system, and Step 3:  on-boarding the public for reforming funding models.
If you missed it, here’s Part 1:  Why Professional Wages Are a Need, Not an Agency Want.


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  1. Hi Meite
    I agree that support workers need to be valued for the work they do and paying people an income that only allows them to live pay cheque to pay cheque is not valuing and is an issue as it creates constant turn over and loss of great staff that just can’t “survive” that way.
    However I am not sure the stance that less people need supports is the proper route….I’m curious as to how those 12,000 people got onto a wait list needing supports and whom determines that those 5,000 people don’t need supports? And if they don’t need supports, how are they on the list?

    I think that supports should be based around need as I also see that 24/7 supports are sometimes an unnecessary cost as not all people require this.

    • Hi Crystal,

      I’ve included links in the blog to the report I was referencing those details. Their sources can be found on page 16-17 of the report. http://bit.ly/1gQcneV It’s not a matter of less supports but re-coordinating supports like has happened in Australia. You’ve seen people that you don’t think require 24/7 support. Likely that’s a result of how their funding works. If they have a low per diem rate they may need to have roommates that receive greater funding to cover their rent. People are funded to be safe, many agencies must work creatively to make the best outcomes possible. This sometimes means people that require less support live with people who need more. With more flexible funding strategies it’s likely we’d see a lot less of this as people would have more options available to them. The 5000 gap was largely attributed to parents getting their kids on lists early in an attempt to get a jump on the system. Hope that answers your questions.

  2. This is a very taxing job both physically and mentally. We do a lot of work and still require other employment as we have great difficulty going from paycheck to paycheck.

    • I hear you Stacy. It’s tough out there. Hang in there! Is your org a part of a provincial advocacy group? In Manitoba it’s called Abilities Manitoba, BC has the BCCEO. If you wanted to get involved in lobbying the government for professionalizing the industry, they would know who to connect with. Your ED may have suggestions as well.

  3. Robbing Peter to pay Paul isn’t sustainable. Another way to free up governmental funding is to abolish the Senat-err-government mis-spending. Billions invested in other international conflict and economic endeavours, while those who live here continue to live without. Perhaps people should stop trying to sew together clothes so torn, they can no longer be threaded.

    • Increasing taxes is another sure-fire way to get more funding, like Scandinavian countries do. They boast free health care, free Post Secondary, and improved social programs. But can you imagine what those in the West would do if their “hard earned” money was “taken” from them more than it already is? We all saw what happened with the PST hike here. People in the West aren’t truly ready for what it takes to improve the social funding dollars that is required to care for our most vulnerable. Bomber and Jets tickets take precedent. $200 for a 3-hour hockey game is much more valuable to the average idiot, than an extra $51 per year to raise Billions country-wide.

      • Interesting points you touched on there Paul. You are right that many people are reluctant to increase taxes. People have a right to know that their taxes are being spent responsibly. Have you seen the recent CBC articles on Medicine Hat and their solution to homelessness? Their Mayor was very against their solution but now he’s one of their biggest supporters because he understands how much better it is socially and fiscally. You should check it out.