By Jim Timlick
Disability support staff working in the community living sector provide an invaluable service to the people they serve, but too often the wages they receive don’t reflect the value of the work they do.
A campaign being coordinated by Abilities Manitoba and its 74 member agencies, including Epic Opportunities, along with the Family Advocacy Network and the Alliance of Direct Support Professionals of Manitoba, is looking to change that.
The Show Us A Sign campaign is aimed at convincing the provincial government to deliver the funding necessary for agencies to provide Disability Support Workers with a living wage. It was officially launched the second week of September to coincide with Direct Support Professionals Week in Manitoba.
Abilities Manitoba Executive Director Margo Powell says the purpose of the campaign is twofold: to boost wages for DSWs and to reduce the high turnover rates and staff shortages that continue to plague many agencies in the community living sector.
“Ultimately, our hope is that we’ll be able to raise wages so that people can receive a fair living wage and are able to continue working in the field,” Powell says.
“Right now, (disability support work) is often a stepping stone to a career. We see people who absolutely love to provide direct support but simply can’t afford to stay doing that work. That’s one of the contributors to the turnover rate: a lot of really valuable Direct Support Professionals leave simply because they can’t afford to put food on the table or pay their bills.”
Ruby Reimer, Executive Director of Epic Opportunities, wholeheartedly agrees and says it’s critical that something be done to address the situation immediately.
“We believe that our disability support staff play an incredibly valuable and critical role in our organization and more importantly in our province,” says Reimer, who also serves as President of Abilities Manitoba.
“Despite this, the wages funded by our province do not allow our employees to make a living wage or to make this work a career. Many of our employees are required to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. We would love to see this change. In fact, it’s critical to the men and women we serve.”
It’s estimated that the average person in Manitoba living with an intellectual disability can expect to have more than 770 different staff provide personal support to them between the ages of 18 to 65.
That’s why Abilities Manitoba determined this past spring that it was time for the group to invest significant efforts into a coordinated campaign to raise the issue and put pressure on the government to address it.
As part of the Show Us A Sign campaign, members of the public are being asked to sign an online petition (www.abilitiesmanitoba.org) calling for improved wages for disability support professionals. Abilities Manitoba has also distributed 15,000 postcards across the province asking people to indicate their support for improved wages, which will be delivered to provincial government when the campaign wraps up later this month.
What Abilities Manitoba and its partner agencies would like to see happen is provincial funding for support staff wages to increase by between 50 and 60 per cent over Manitoba’s current minimum wage rate over the next three years. That would help bring salaries in line with the $16.45 an hour Make Poverty History Manitoba says represents a living wage for a single parent, Powell says.
As of mid-November, the campaign had already collected more than 5,400 online signatures and that number could double or triple once all of the postcards are collected.
Powell says she is optimistic that there is an opportunity for change.
“The government has been very consistent in their messaging that there is no more money for wages,” she says. “We know our government is focused on reducing the deficit, so it’s critical that we keep reminding them of areas that require action. It’s more important than ever to keep this issue forefront as the province is making budget decisions for next year.”