Many tears, no budget: House Democrats push $15 wage floor for social workers

By Harvard Zhang

Springfield, Ill. — A number of bills proposed by Democratic representatives to boost social workers’ benefits including a $15 minimum hourly wage will face full House scrutiny after clearing a key committee Wednesday, despite the already deeply-cut funding for state social services.

The majority Democratic lawmakers, holding 11 seats out of 20 on the House Appropriations-Human Services Committee, pushed the bills through to the House floor, engaging their Republican counterparts in debates about the balance between benefits and costs.

Workers helping children, seniors, and people with disabilities and mental illnesses detailed emotionally to the lawmakers their belt- tightening and working multiple shifts on a common hourly wage of around $10 as their employers cut back on salaries and let go people in the face of shrinking state funding.

“I tried to explain to my daughter I was doing it for her but it’s difficult to explain all that to a four-year-old,” testified Ashley Ruebling, 27, an education specialist who teaches children with developmental disabilities. “I pray one day she truly understands my absence.”

Ruebling, a single parent of two who lost their father to a motorcycle accident, earns what is considered a high wage in her field of $12.80 per hour, and works 55 hours to 60 hours per week because she has to.

Social services organizations and their staffs have taken the brunt of the prolonged state budget crisis, now in its tenth month. Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, the largest statewide non-profit social services provider, more than $6 million short on state aid in January, shut down 30 programs, eliminated 750 positions and left 4,700 people, mostly seniors, without their lifeline help.

Democratic lawmakers promoted a minimum wage of $15 per hour starting July 1 for workers in child care and personnel helping people with disabilities and mental health issues. Workers assisting seniors would see their hourly rate edging up at least $1.25 over the next four years from $19 per hour starting July 1 to $25 per hour in fiscal 2019. The current Illinois minimum wage is $8.25 per hour.

Republican lawmakers voiced concerns of continuing the over-promising that has plagued the state, asking to weigh the costs of the bills among a slew of priorities.

On finding avenues to attain a $15 wage floor for workers helping people with autism or learning disorders, State Rep. Tom Demmer (R-Dixon) said, “maybe we should look at ways that could reduce other costs and also worker compensation reform, liability insurance reform, areas where they’re currently spending dollars that could be better redirected to support livable wages of employees,”

Photo at top: Illinois State Rep. Jaime Andrade Jr., third from left, proposed a bill raising the minimum wage for social workers helping seniors. (Harvard Zhang/MEDILL)