PI Original Ellyn Fortino Monday October 3rd, 2016, 5:07pm

Illinoisans Decry Proposed Overtime Ban For In-Home Caregivers At State Hearing

The Rauner administration's proposed overtime policy for in-home health care workers was the subject of a state hearing Monday afternoon. Illinois home care workers and people with disabilities testified at the hearing, demanding that the administration rescind its "disastrous" proposal. 

Illinoisans who attended a state hearing in Chicago Monday afternoon railed against the Rauner administration's proposed overtime ban for health care workers who assist people with disabilities in their homes.

At issue is the Rauner administration's plan to cap weekly working hours at 40 for personal assistants in the Illinois Home Services Program (HSP). The program connects people with disabilities to in-home personal attendants, or PAs.

The Illinois Department of Human Services began enforcing the overtime policy in May, but suspended it in early August shortly before disability advocates were about to file a class-action lawsuit against the regulations. 

After suspending the policy, the Rauner administration announced plans to use the rule-making process to implement the no-overtime regulations. Now, DHS is asking the Illinois Legislature's Joint Committee on Administrative Rules to approve the overtime ban.

"This is another example of an administration so hell-bent on its political agenda that it's using tricky, sneaky administrative practices to jam through political policies that it can't win through the regular process," Fran Tobin with the Alliance for Human Services said at Monday's DHS hearing on the overtime proposal.

The administration's overtime plan came in response to federal government regulations from January 2015. The regulations granted in-home health care workers the right to a minimum wage and overtime pay as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Illinois' Home Services Bureau Chief Vivian Anderson spoke at the top of the hearing. She said the overtime ban would protect HSP clients, create jobs and save taxpayer dollars. The goal, she said, is to be "fiscally responsible so we can sustain the program and continue to serve as many customers as possible." 

As a result of the overtime ban's initial implementation in May, Anderson said many HSP clients currently have "multiple providers, rather than a single IP [individual provider] working lengthy shifts of seven days a week."

"More than 4,000 providers have been hired this year," Anderson added. "No IPs were unfunded as a result of this policy. No customers suffered terrible hardships during the months of implementation. No customers have been institutionalized as a result of the policy. Our customers are the most important thing to the department."

But those who testified after Anderson described the no-overtime policy as "disastrous," saying it caused great stress for consumers and providers. Clients who required more than 40 hours of assistance per week needed to find additional workers to assist them.

"Customers needing home services in excess of 40 hours per week were confronted with the enormously stressful task of trying to find additional IPs to work for them or face possible institutionalization, a task worsened by the already-existing scarcity of personal assistants," said Adam Ballard, policy and organizing manager at Access Living and an HSP client.

"Contrary to the state's claims, there is still a shortage of thousands of IPs," he said. "Some customers, particularly those historically cared for by family members, have not been able to tolerate new and unknown IPs coming into their homes."

Vera Amaro cares for her daughter, who was in a car accident 20 years ago that left her blind and an amputee. Amaro's daughter is a brain trauma patient and uses a colostomy bag and catheter.

Amaro said she makes $13 an hour as an HSP provider -- the same wage she earned 20 years ago when she worked as a secretary.

"Caregivers have worked and advocated so hard to get basic protections like overtime pay, and when we finally got the change at the federal level, Governor Rauner moved quickly to take it away with the DHS overtime policy," she said.

Amaro said her family faced "great financial hardship" under the overtime ban. She said it was difficult finding a second caregiver to work her overtime hours. Few workers had the skills required for her daughter's care, Amaro said. And those with the required skills did not want to work only a couple hours per week for $13 an hour.

"Pinching pennies won't make sense in the long-run," she stressed. "Instead of paying us overtime, the state will end up paying for people with disabilities like my daughter to live in nursing homes, which would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars more each year."

Elaine Walker, another HSP provider, cares for her two daughters with cerebral palsy and other health conditions. Walker testified with her 21-year-old daughter Melissa.

"The governor, with this overtime policy, has cut my mom's pay by 70 percent, and it's hard because I hate seeing her have to worry about what's going to happen to us," Melissa said.

Gov. Bruce Rauner "doesn't understand exactly what it's doing," she said of the overtime policy. "He's causing pain. He's disrupting my life."

In remarks before the hearing, state Reps. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago) and Greg Harris (D-Chicago) also urged the administration to reconsider the overtime ban. 

"I think it's really important that we as a state stop trying to balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable," Harris said. "If these cuts go through, if the continued attacks on seniors and people with disabilities are allowed to stand, it's gonna hurt these families, it's gonna hurt our neighborhoods and it's gonna cost the state more money in the long-run."

A second DHS hearing on the overtime proposal is scheduled for Thursday in Springfield. 

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