A coalition of worker and advocacy groups is urging the Rauner administration to reconsider new overtime restrictions impacting in-home care providers for Illinoisans with disabilities. The organizations released a white paper this week, warning that the overtime policy is "disrupting the care system and harming workers, consumers and families."
A new overtime policy impacting Illinois home health care workers who assist people with disabilities has advocacy groups speaking out.
On Thursday, a coalition of groups -- Access Living, Caring Across Generations, the Illinois Network of Centers for Independent Living, the National Employment Law Project and SEIU* Healthcare Illinois -- released a white paper blasting the new overtime policy, which the state began enforcing last month.
"One month in, as stakeholders warned, Illinois' rigid and ill-advised new overtime restrictions are disrupting the care system and harming workers, consumers and families," the report reads.
At issue are workers with the Illinois Home Services Program (HSP), which connects some 28,000 people with disabilities to personal attendants who assist them at their homes.
Under the new overtime measure, weekly working hours for HSP personal assistants are capped at 40 hours, though there are exceptions. SEIU Healthcare Illinois, which represents home care workers in the state, says the overtime policy has impacted about 8,500 HSP personal assistants.
In January 2015, the federal government issued regulations granting in-home health care workers the right to a minimum wage and overtime pay as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Gov. Bruce Rauner's administration says the state cannot afford time-and-a-half overtime pay for HSP providers because of the long-running budget impasse, now in its eleventh month. As such, state officials say the 40-hour workweek limit for HSP workers is needed in an effort to control state costs.
Now, clients who require more than 40 hours of assistance per week must have additional workers assist them. To that end, administration has reportedly brought on 5,000 more personal assistants for the program.
But the worker and advocacy groups maintain that 5,000 additional personal assistants would have been "reached through historic turnover in the program" anyway. The state, according to the report, "generally requires an inflow of roughly 9,400 new workers annually just to replace the workers who leave the program each year due to low pay and difficult working conditions."
The groups are accusing the administration of using "a budget crisis as an excuse to weaken" HSP. They further allege the overtime limit "has thrown the care system into disarray, threatens Olmstead protections for people with disabilities, and is being implemented through intimidation and threats from state agency offices."
Olmstead, as previously referenced, was a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1999, which affirmed the rights of people with disabilities to live in community-based settings.
DHS did not immediately return a request for comment in response to the report and its accusations.
Last month, in an interview with The Effingham Daily News, a DHS spokeswoman assured the public that the department "is not cutting" service hours for clients.
"They will still get the number of eligible hours, determined by their needs score. All we ask is that people justify the hours they work," DHS spokeswoman Marianne Manko said.
Overall, the overtime policy "comes down to a safety issue for the client," she added.
"If they want to remain at home, we prefer a customer has multiple people who can give them the care they need," Manko said, according to the newspaper. "The client gets to choose who they want."
The report, however, claims that consumers, particularly those is smaller, rural areas, are struggling to find additional caregivers.
Beth Fairweather is a HSP personal assistant who says it has been difficult finding additional caregivers for her client, a Chicago man named John with multiple sclerosis.
"John cannot be left alone and I am on call all day, every day," Fairweather said. "If I hear him choking in the middle of the night, I get up immediately to suction his airway. If he has an accident, I get up and change him."
Before the overtime policy took effect, Fairweather said she was being paid for about 72 hours of work per week. She is now being paid for 35 to 40 weekly work hours, and is reportedly in the process of applying for an exception to the limit.
"In the meantime, I've interviewed several potential caregivers to take over John's additional hours," she said. "Unfortunately, so far the candidates have found the job to be too overwhelming. The level of responsibility does not line up with the hourly pay and lack of benefits offered. You must understand, you can't shirk responsibilities in these situations - it could cost John his life if the feeding tube is not properly monitored or if his airway isn't suctioned ... I will not abandon John, and I will do everything I can to keep him living at home where he wants to be."
The groups are calling on the administration to reconsider the overtime policy.
"It is our hope that Governor Rauner and his administration will listen to the concerns of the people listed in this white paper and will suspend the new overtime policy and work with stakeholders to develop a new policy that supports people with disabilities and personal assistants in the Home Services Program," said Adam Ballard, Access Living's manager of organizing and policy.
UPDATE (06/06/16, 10 a.m.): DHS responded Monday morning to Progress Illinois' request for comment on this story.
The overtime policy would have been enacted regardless of whether Illinois was experiencing a budget impasse, the department said.
The Rauner administration, according to DHS, is not banning time-and-a-half overtime pay for HSP workers, but rather asking them to justify their overtime.
Overall, the administration has suggested appropriating about $15 million a year to cover expenses associated with overtime pay for HSP providers, the department said.
Many HSP providers have been approved for overtime, meanwhile, and they have collectively been paid more than $3 million in time-and-a-half pay already in the first few months of 2016. Also, 5,000 new personal assistants have registered as HSP providers. Of that total, many personal assistants have registered as "backup providers" who, according to DHS, were selected by customers.
As for the report's claims that the overtime policy "has thrown the care system into disarray, threatens Olmstead protections for people with disabilities, and is being implemented through intimidation and threats from state agency offices," DHS says opponents of the overtime policy have provided no examples to back up such allegations.
*The SEIU Illinois Council sponsors this website.