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updated: 5/19/2014 5:33 AM

For Illinois caretakers, raises are hard to come by

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  • Video: Caregivers vs. Springfield

  • Just home from work, Cambridge House resident Billy Yacilla hugs caregiver Gregory Mathis, who has received only $1.70 in raises in his 12 years on the job.

       Just home from work, Cambridge House resident Billy Yacilla hugs caregiver Gregory Mathis, who has received only $1.70 in raises in his 12 years on the job.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Cambridge House resident John Davis gives a fist bump to Robert Okazaki of Avenues to Independence.

       Cambridge House resident John Davis gives a fist bump to Robert Okazaki of Avenues to Independence.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Billy Yacilla gives a kiss to caregiver Neoma Spencer of Hoffman Estates after she combed his hair at Cambridge House.

       Billy Yacilla gives a kiss to caregiver Neoma Spencer of Hoffman Estates after she combed his hair at Cambridge House.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Caregiver Neoma Spencer of Hoffman Estates shares a moment with Michael Voelkner, a resident of Cambridge House.

       Caregiver Neoma Spencer of Hoffman Estates shares a moment with Michael Voelkner, a resident of Cambridge House.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 

On the second night of the NFL draft, an Oakland Raiders pick from 40 years ago sat in a one-story house in Des Plaines with a wheelchair ramp out front, a home he's both lived and worked in for 12 years.

Dozens of millionaires would be newly minted via the draft.

But on that Friday evening, Gregory Mathis, the Raiders' 15th pick in 1974, planned to watch the Chicago Blackhawks playoff hockey game with the residents of the house as part of his $10.70-an-hour job.

Six people with disabilities live at the home, called Cambridge House for the quiet Des Plaines street where it sits. Mathis is charged with taking care of them for the afternoon, overnight and early the next morning. He charts their progress, prepares meals, cleans up, and helps them bathe and use the bathroom.

Mathis, 62, has received $1.70 in raises in a dozen years for his work. His pay reflects stagnant state funding for agencies like his employer, Avenues to Independence, an issue that demonstrates how the political give and take in this month's state budget battle can hang over daily life.

The path to financial stability -- and eventually more money for key services -- is a source of partisan disagreement. Democrats want to extend a 2011 income tax hike and keep the revenue that comes with it. Republicans say Democrats presided over the state's descent into debt and argue lower tax rates and economic growth will lead to more money for the state.

Mathis, a native Chicagoan and social-work major who went to school on a football scholarship, says he gets by fine now that his son is grown. Still, he says, it doesn't make sense that lawmakers wouldn't prioritize the care of people who can't help themselves.

"If they respected us, the money would come," Mathis said. "It's almost like they devalue (people in need) more than they devalue us."

Illinois pays agencies like Avenues to Independence for the work their staffs do. The amount spent on the program across the state hasn't increased since 2007.

So workers' pay largely has stalled, too.

Workers who do similar jobs but work directly for the state at institutions for the disabled make as much as 50 percent more, with benefits and a pension. But Gov. Pat Quinn has worked to shift the task of caring for people with disabilities to community settings like Cambridge House instead of institutions.

State lawmakers racing to meet a May 31 budget deadline are locked in a historic dispute over taxes that both parties agree will determine the state's finances for years to come.

Quinn has said "savage" program cuts will follow if the 5 percent income tax drops to 3.75 percent Jan. 1 as scheduled.

Pay raises for people like Mathis are being discussed for next year's budget -- if the tax increase is renewed, said state Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat and budget negotiator.

"Without it, we can't do anything," she said.

Republicans disagree. Illinois residents have been paying the 5 percent income tax rate for more than three years and the state hasn't increased funding for programs that hire caregivers, they point out.

State Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican, argued it doesn't make sense to keep doing the same thing. Lower taxes, he said, could help Illinois push down an unemployment rate that's higher than the national average.

"When people don't work, they don't pay taxes," Murphy said.

Meanwhile, miles from the political theatrics of the Capitol, life goes on at Cambridge House.

Mathis' fellow residents arrived on a Pace bus at about 3:15 p.m., home from the agency's Des Plaines facility where they can make around $40 per week doing tasks like packaging soap and shampoo for hotels.

Billy Yacilla, 70, walked in the front door and greeted Mathis and his fellow worker, Neoma Spencer, 60, of Hoffman Estates with subtle hugs, happy to be home from work but saying almost nothing. The residents here have varying disabilities.

John Davis arrived shortly after Yacilla, using his electric wheelchair. It wasn't long before Davis was playing a video game with animated characters and word challenges on a desktop computer modified for his use. Yacilla rarely left Spencer's side the rest of the afternoon.

Near the computer is the large television where they would later watch the Blackhawks game.

Above the TV on a shelf are photos of two former residents of Cambridge House who have died. The family of one, Tim, has since helped landscape the house's backyard.

All the men's small bedrooms have sports themes of some kind.

Davis' room is a shrine to the Chicago Bulls, and the house's living room includes a poster of Michael Jordan's famous game-winning shot in the 1998 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz.

Yacilla's room is decorated in the red and blue of the Chicago Cubs, complete with a ceiling fan bulb that looks like a baseball.

From the outside, there's no evidence Cambridge House isn't a single-family home, thanks in part to neighbors chipping in to help out, from shoveling snow in the winter to landscaping in the spring.

Most weekdays, Mathis doesn't go home to Oak Park between shifts and instead visits the local library. Because of his stagnant pay, Mathis said he gave up his car five years ago. Getting home and back in time for his 3 p.m. shift now would suck up most of his free time.

After everyone goes to bed, Mathis fills out paperwork that sits in three-ring binders on a kitchen table, detailing residents' progress and their medical needs. He'll clean up the house and make lunches for the next day. And before leaving his shift at 7 a.m., he'll make breakfast.

Advocates are trying to get a $3-per-hour raise over the next several years for workers like Mathis, called direct support professionals, in a push they call the Care Campaign. Quinn has called for a $30 million bump in his proposed budget, which would be enough for a $1-per-hour increase starting Jan. 1, 2015.

The effort to raise workers' pay joins myriad requests for more state money. Success isn't guaranteed, and advocates have been making a similar request for years.

Spencer started working at the house about 13 years ago making $9 per hour. Now, she makes $11.50 an hour. Like Mathis, Spencer's children are grown, and because her husband is retired from a good job, she says she gets by OK.

But low wages mean the agency has a hard time recruiting young new workers. Recently, it took more than two months to find someone new to hire.

Because of its fundraising efforts in the suburbs, Avenues offers $10 per hour to start -- more than the state average of $9.35 -- and deducts only $80 per month for health insurance, a benefit not every agency can provide.

Agency leaders say it's hard to compete for workers when grocery stores down the street offer similar starting wages to their employees.

High turnover can cause stress and depression for the residents when someone they've come to know suddenly is gone.

"We know when the younger people come in, they're not going to stay," Mathis said. "At some point you have to pass the torch. Who is really there that is going to pick that up? We're doing things that their families don't want to do. So we have to fill that void."

Mathis is responsible for helping Davis shower and rolling him in bed a couple of times overnight because he can't do it on his own. He stays at least until his shift ends, and sometimes longer.

Getting more money for any program that relies on state funding isn't as simple as proving a need. After all, the line is long.

Earlier this month, mayors worked to defend the $1.4 billion sent to towns every year from state income taxes, predicting layoffs and service cuts if the money dried up.

Weeks before, Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Rita Garman said if court services were cut, officers wouldn't be able to monitor more than 40,000 offenders on probation.

And the Illinois State Board of Education says schools statewide need $1 billion more than they're getting to provide students with an adequate education.

No matter what lawmakers do before their May 31 budget deadline, people who care for the disabled will live with the results.

Most have two jobs to make ends meet and argue their main job, working with the disabled, rises beyond the responsibilities of a typical $10-per-hour job.

Mathis works with at-risk kids on the side. Before their children grew up, Mathis and Spencer would watch each other's children when the other was working or have them in the house spending time with the residents.

Now, Spencer's daughter works at the workshop where Cambridge House residents go during the day. Growing up, she became close to a resident named Jimmy in particular.

"Now she's his supervisor," Spencer said.

Before the evening's dinner was ready, one of the resident's fathers, Fred Voelkner of Park Ridge, came to pick up his son, Mike, for the weekend.

Voelkner said Mike was on a waiting list for years in hopes of getting into a group home like this one. Before Mike got in, Voelkner worried no one would be around to care for his son after he died.

"You can't run on charity all the time," Voelkner said.

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