Disability Coalition of Midland County tackles local employment issues

Many sectors of our economy are finding it difficult to fill their workforce. That’s also true in the non-profit sector, an area that provides services for individuals who have a variety of needs.

“Attracting and retaining direct care workers has always been a challenge, and the pandemic created additional stress in filling this role.  The position of direct care worker is a low paying job, with high stress and long hours. Direct care workers currently earn an average of $14.00/hour (in Midland), and many do not receive benefits. There is no training currently available to prepare the worker for this position. Individuals need support 24/7/365 which means that nights, weekends, and holidays are non-negotiable.  Currently, many fast-food restaurants pay a higher starting wage than people receive in the critical role of caring for a vulnerable human.  Add to that, the dynamics of finding the right person with the right personality to work directly with an individual that struggles to communicate, has high safety and medical needs. With the low pay and demanding duties, people don’t stay long in this position. This causes additional stress for the individual being served, as there is a learning curve to the position and training new support staff can be taxing on the person they are supporting,” shares Trisha Fenby, an active participant in the Midland County Disability Coalition.

"Attracting and retaining direct care workers has always been a challenge..."
Fenby is not only a parent of an adult child with a disability, but an advocate for all individuals with special needs. There are three areas of interest for the Coalition: Fostering wellbeing and inclusion; attracting, developing, and retaining talent (direct care workers); and employment opportunities. Fenby’s role is focused on fostering wellbeing and inclusion.

This coalition is an offshoot of Midland County’s Health and Human Services Council and is committed to building a culture of inclusion and making a way for those with disabilities in our community. The group is made up of several organizations including the United Way of Midland County, Disability Network of Mid-Michigan, Department of Health and Human Services, Community Mental Health, The Arnold Center, Personal Assistance Options, The Arc of Midland, Michigan Rehabilitation Services, Midland County ESA, Senior Services, and the Midland Business Alliance.
John Searles is the superintendent of the Midland County ESA.
John Searles, Midland County Educational Service Agency Superintendent, says that he needed to understand how these agencies worked together, so he started to convene a group of leaders pre-Covid to sit down and talk about their collective challenges. Though the pandemic put a hold on their monthly meetings, they were successful in bringing the group back together to discuss topics such as employee shortages, “We compete for the same people who do these jobs. Some people call them ‘direct care workers,’ some call them ‘job coaches,’ but we really sat down and talked about how we could work together better. One of the things that came about after having these conversations was getting the people we serve working, also. Pre-pandemic we had individuals working at Dow, but when everything shut down, that also stopped. Currently, we are working with MyMichigan to get our students filling roles there,” Searles shares. “We’re super excited about it.”
Jennifer Grace is the Executive Director at The Arnold Center.
The Disability Coalition plays a pivotal role, with one of its key members representing both an employer of direct care professionals and a dedicated disability service provider, Jennifer Grace, Executive Director of the Arnold Center. She not only champions the employer's perspective but also steers a vital subcommittee focused on Attracting, Developing, and Retaining Talent. “The Arnold Center employs over fifty direct care professionals. These professionals are the backbone of our community, providing indispensable services that empower individuals with disabilities to lead enriched, fulfilling lives,” says Grace. “The Arnold Center stands tall among numerous vital organizations in the region, all united in their mission to serve those with disabilities. However, these organizations are currently navigating a challenging landscape, striving to attract committed and qualified individuals to this profession. Direct support professionals are the unsung heroes of our community, embodying the essence of service and compassion by enhancing the lives of others daily. Their work is a testament to the profound impact of putting others' needs before one's own, all while upholding dignity and respect.”

Like Fenby, Grace acknowledges that it is difficult to keep individuals in these roles as pay is low and responsibility is high. “It's disheartening to note that the compensation for these pivotal roles does not reflect their significance. While our healthcare systems and lawmakers acknowledge the critical nature of these positions for the safety and well-being of our community's most vulnerable members, this recognition has yet to translate into financial support. In Michigan, the average hourly wage for a direct support professional stands at $17.21, a figure that scarcely mirrors the immense responsibilities these individuals shoulder, from managing medications to fostering community inclusion.”

As a mother of a child with a disability, Fenby faces many challenges when finding staff to support her adult daughter. “We opted to use a self-determination budget to hire staff directly, rather than through a staffing agency.  This allows my daughter to have more autonomy in selecting staff to work with her. She is very engaged in the hiring process. Whether using this method, or a staffing agency, there is a high turnover in this field. The job is demanding, the hours are not flexible. It’s an essential role. For us, because we do not use an agency, if a staff (member) calls in due to an illness or the weather, we are left without staff. I can’t just pick up the phone and send another person in to do the job. We struggled to find enough people to fill the hours available and she was alone, often in her own apartment. This caused some safety and health concerns, and she ended up moving back home with me.  In addition, because of the crisis in finding qualified workers, our budget was cut. Even if we could find staff now, we wouldn’t have the authorization to hire them,” she shares.

“It is time for our community to rally behind these vital professionals, to elevate their status and acknowledge the indispensable role they play. We urge community members to engage in dialogue with legislators and government officials, advocating for the appropriate funding of these roles. By doing so, we can not only retain our current talent but also attract new individuals to this critical field, ensuring the continued support and enrichment of our community members' lives,” continues Grace. Searles also acknowledges the struggles the community faces when filling these roles but wants people to realize that this is only part of the challenge. Yes, we need to fill direct care positions, but we also need to provide opportunities for those who have a disability to be a working, productive member of our community. “All of us are thinking about how important the universal design is in the community, that you can age in place and things like that. What we want to have as an outcome is a better understanding for people in the community, that we are really working together and that people with disabilities are a very viable sector of employees. They are very loyal, and they tend to be able to fill niche areas and be really successful if we just give them the chance,” says Searles.
Fun day at the Miracle Field!
When Trisha Fenby was asked what the community can do to help, she says, “Our community lives by the mission ‘Midland: An inclusive community. Together. Forward. Bold. An exceptional place, where everyone thrives.’ This is a bold statement. To truly be an inclusive community, where everyone thrives, we must be open to understanding people that are different from ourselves. We must be willing to look at the possibilities and the opportunity to build belonging across our county. Our community does this, but we can certainly get better at it. The simplest way is to know your neighbor.  Neighboring is the catalyst for building a sense of belonging.  Being a natural support for individuals with disabilities, the elderly, and other vulnerable populations is another way to increase belonging. You can do this within your neighborhood, your work, your faith organization, or even the local business you frequent. Consider volunteering for organizations like The Miracle Field, Senior Services of Midland, or teach a fun class at Creative 360’s Artshop program. Finally, look at the environment through a different lens. What may seem inclusive to one person could be a barrier to others.”

To learn more about The Disability Coalition of Midland County, please contact one of the community partners listed in this article. 

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Read more articles by Carly Lillard.

Carly Lillard moved to the Great Lakes Bay Region in 2007 from Traverse City. Since that time, she’s graduated from Northwood University and worked in fund development and communications for a variety of non-profits including Shelterhouse and Holy Cross Services. Currently, Carly is working to complete her Master’s Degree from Michigan State University in Strategic Communication. When she’s not writing, you will find her spending time with her husband, Jesse, and two children, Maycie and Elias. Carly can be reached at carlylillard@gmail.com.