Direct support workers throughout Illinois — workers who provide round-the-clock care for physically and developmentally disabled children and adults — are working for shockingly low wages and deserve a long-overdue boost in pay from the state.

Direct support workers labor to provide medical care, emotional and physical support, help with daily activities and try to ensure those they care for enjoy their lives as much as possible. It can be emotionally draining, back-breaking work. They give baths, brush teeth, assist with toileting, cook meals, do activities with clients, drive them to appointments, entertain them and generally try to make their lives as happy as possible.

Direct support workers, in essence, function as stand-in parents, best friends and EMTs to those they care for.

And their job is crucial not only because of the care they provide to the disabled, but also because of the down time and the peace of mind they are able to provide families of disabled individuals.

Yet, direct support workers in Illinois earn an average $9.35 per hour, which is 21 percent below the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services poverty threshold of $11.32 for a family of four, according to members of the Care Campaign, an effort designed to bring awareness of the low wages the workers earn.

The wages are based on the amount of money the state provides to not-for-profit community providers each year. The providers have not received a cost-of-doing-business increase from the Illinois legislature since 2007.

That’s unacceptable to us, to the providers, to the workers and, most importantly, to the families of those who receive care.

“It’s embarrassing to me that they are doing so much for my son and I can’t do back for them,” said Charlotte Cronin, whose 28-year-old son, Daniel, has severe disabilities and lives at Trinity Services in Peoria.

Such low wages for direct support workers lead to high turnover, which is unsettling for the state’s 23,000 disabled clients and their families. It also puts more pressure on the workers who stick around, work as much overtime as possible and sometimes work two or three additional jobs to make ends meet and support their own families.

Direct support workers and the providers they work for are asking the legislature to increase the starting wage to $13 an hour, with an initial increase of $1 an hour for all direct support workers.

It is difficult to go to the state of Illinois and ask for more money during these difficult and turbulent fiscal times. However, the state has put off increases for these providers for years.

Their request has merit and should be considered by the General Assembly as soon as possible. The plight of Illinois’ 31,000 direct support workers and the families they support — both at work and at their own homes — is too important to continue overlooking. They deserve a decent living wage.

— GateHouse Media Illinois