Rep. Joe Schomacker, Luverne, (back) helps RCO client Christopher Anderson prepare his lunch Tuesday, Dec. 10, in the RCO dining room as part of the legislator’s daylong experience learning what it’s like to work as a direct support professional.

Schomacker spends day with RCO worker to highlight workforce crisis

Rep. Joe Schomacker, Luverne, spent a day in the shoes of a direct support professional last week working with clients at Rock County Opportunities.

It was a “boots on the ground” opportunity for the local lawmaker to learn more about the organization, the staff and the adults with disabilities they serve.

“To see them in action for the day rather than for a brief visit was valuable,” Schomacker said.

“It was really an eye opener. I was struck by how personally they break everything down for clients’ interests and needs.”

RCO director Elizabeth Schear invited Schomacker to shadow direct support professionals (DSP) in Luverne after Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz spent a day working as a home health care worker last month.

Like the Walz experience, Schomacker’s day at RCO was intended to highlight the challenges of working with people with disabilities, particularly in light of persistently low wages.

“You really have to have the right person with the right mindset for this type of work,” Schomacker said. “The whole patience factor alone was challenging.”

During the noon lunch break, for example, he helped a young man retrieve his Rubbermaid container of food from his soft-side cooler and heat it in the microwave.

Schomacker could have done it in minutes, but the point was to help the client do it himself. This involved directing him to stay on task, instructing him to place the entrée in the microwave and reminding him which buttons to press in order to cook the food.

RCO’s lead DSP David Vis coached Schomacker for the experience that started at 7:30 a.m. and lasted until 3:30 p.m. with a short break at 1 p.m. The day included outings on the bus, exercise, toileting, laundry services and more.

“Dave was so patient and easy-going,” Schomacker said. “There was something he was trying to get done, but he got interrupted four or five times on the way.”

He also noted how respectfully RCO staff members treat their clients.

“These are people working with folks who have some challenges, and their dignity is a big part of what they work toward every day,” Schomacker said.

“I could see how much they know about their clients and care about them.”

RCO depends on state funds for its operations, but that funding has historically been unstable, making it difficult to retain staff and maintain services.

“It takes a passion to help others who need assistance to stay motivated and thrive in this field,” Schear said.

“Being a part of others’ success can be very rewarding, too, and the public often doesn’t understand the fulfillment staff find here, she explains.”

According to Schear, RCO’s employee roster has a 70-percent turnover due to a number of causes, including low wages and high levels of responsibility.

DSPs historically make 17 percent less on average than people employed in comparable professions. Current state and federal funding allows RCO to start employees at $13.73 per hour and work up to $15 per hour.

Meanwhile, state regulations designed to protect vulnerable adults create a stressful environment for DSPs who must document every 15 minutes spent with a client.

Overlooking one minor detail could mean a fraud charge for RCO. “That’s a lot of pressure,” Schear said.

Meanwhile, for every employee that quits, it costs money and time to hire and train a new one, all of which takes valuable resources away from the clients the program serves.

Schear said she hopes that Schomacker’s experience will help him communicate on behalf of DSPs when it comes to drafting legislation that will improve the lives of disabled adults.

“The point was to raise awareness of the workforce crisis so we can address it,” Schear said.

“Legislators across the state can do that only after they truly understand what goes on here. It’s impossible to know what we do here until you spend a day here.”

As a member of the Health and Human Services Committee at the Minnesota Legislature, Schomacker has visited RCO several times and thought he understood what it was all about.

After his Dec. 10 “day in the life of a DSP worker,” he said he gained a new level of understanding about what the workers do and what they mean to their clients.

 

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