Mahatma Gandhi once said what you do will be insignificant. But it is very important that you do it.
I thought of that driving home from Augusta last Wednesday after taking a whole leave day off from work so that I could spend a long afternoon, first waiting and then testifying at the legislative hearing on LD 818, a bill to improve training and retention of direct care workers.
I am a direct care worker. The granite hallways of the state house crowded with suit-coated legislators and lobbyists were a shock to me. All that bustling seemed overwhelming. Everyone else seemed to know where they were going and what they were doing and it all seemed important.
LD 818 is not earth shattering. The resolve directs the Maine Departments of Health and Human Services and Labor to develop and to provide information about professional and career development, training and related credentialing and certification to all professional direct care and personal supports workers. It is our hope it will be a step in making direct care job titles and training more consistent and will bring about increased respect and pay for workers who acquire more skills. That’s not too much to ask.
We waited politely as a group of people provided testimony in support of a bill promoting additional services for the blind and the visually impaired. What was being asked for seemed modest. We heard inspiring and harrowing testimony from self advocates who had lost their sight due to injury or illness. Although the committee members occasionally shook their heads and muttered about, getting this through Appropriations… they were mostly supportive. And the guide dogs were treated well.
But that took a long time and we waited for a second bill to be debated requiring that employers properly inform their employees about benefits. A man who retired from Wal-Mart and wasn’t paid for his personal time told his story and then a series of lobbyists spoke about placing an undue burden of paperwork on small business owners.
I thought of the legislators sitting in their chairs for long hours, asking questions about the jurisdiction here and the funding mechanisms there, and I realized that even the most conscientious of us only partially understand what the stacks of paper actually mean in the lives of human beings.
Then it was our turn. Representative Matt Peterson introduced the bill. Roy Gedat of the DCA spoke first in support. Roy is good at this. He was clear and brief and answered questions calmly. The legislators reacted well. Others spoke in support, including representatives from the Maine Association of Community Service Providers (MACSP), Seniors Plus and Home Care for Maine, the Alzheimer’s Association, the Ombudsman’s office and Legal Services for the Elderly. They tended to focus on statistics – the number of people needing care is growing, funding sources are shrinking, pay scales are not keeping up with other industries, reimbursement rates are so low that training is becoming a luxury… There was no opposition from the committee members.
The DCA was there as well. Helen Hanson spoke of her experience providing home care for the elderly and not getting sick time or vacation time or paid enough to live comfortably. Helen read testimony from Tammy Rowe Dawson, who wasn’t able to get time off from work to attend. Roberta Record brought her puppets and spoke of her work with veterans at the local VA hospital. Harry Graham quoted Aristotle. Julie Moulton waited with her story, but had to leave before she had a chance to speak. I did my five minutes, reading a poem and saying what I believe – that because we do not adequately train, respect or pay direct care workers, services for the developmentally disabled people in our state are often not very good. The legislators nodded their heads and thanked us all.
Then a representative from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services stood up and spoke against the bill, arguing it will add to the cost of doing business. The committee members were not sympathetic; Sen. Rector asked her if training direct care workers is not your mission, what is your mission?
And that was that – my first time testifying before a legislative committee. I left to go home as more lobbyists were entering the room for a hearing on wage and hour reimbursement in the food service industry. That’s when I thought of the Gandhi quote. The committee was clearly sympathetic to our bill. If I had not spoken my piece, surely that would not have changed. And how much difference will their endorsement make in the lives of direct care workers anyway?
But it was very important to do.