As demand for frontline caregivers soars, Direct Care Alliance strains for a lifeline

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James M. Berklan
James M. Berklan

Long-term care workers are, by nature, hearty souls. They have to be. That's probably why Monday's notice set off bells in numerous offices here. It's over. Operations are ceasing.

A group representing thousands of direct-care workers has succumbed to the fiscal realities of 2014. The Direct Care Alliance is literally closing shop, though its leaders predict their mission will live on.

Never too flashy or big in the money-spending department, DCA saw grant money and benefactors shrink during its nine-year existence. Offices in Washington and New York are to close by Monday. A “virtual” office will continue until Oct. 20. It is hoped by then that another organization will have tossed DCA officers and members a life preserver.

“We just couldn't make it work any more,” DCA Board Chair Tracy Dudzinski told me Tuesday. “Foundations are not as free with their grants as they used to be.”

As a result, about five full-time equivalent positions may be lost. This is not a top-heavy, wasteful organization to begin with. Its leaders fear most for the voice of the “little guy” in the caregiving matrix.

“DCA has always been about having direct care workers speak for themselves. We really need to change the public's perception of what we do,” Dudzinski said. “They think we're babysitters and companions, when we do a lot more than that.”

DCA has come to be known mainly as a voice for home care workers, but that doesn't tell the whole story, leaders say. Certified nursing aides, assisted living aides and others are among the 10,000 receiving DCA newsletters, Dudzinski explained.

“That's one of the problems: There are so many names for what we do, people are confused. We provide a really important service, and there's already a shortage of workers and more will be needed,” she said.

DCA's crowning achievement in recent years was its advocacy toward getting the Fair Labor Standards Act extended to include home care workers. As of January 2015, home care workers will have to be paid at least minimum wage, and they'll also gain new overtime considerations.

“People say it won't work, but here in Wisconsin, we already have [such provisions] in place,” Dudzinski said. “They're already paying minimum wage and overtime — and making a profit.”

In 2005, with the help of a grant from Atlantic Philanthropies, DCA became an independent outgrowth of the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute (PHI),  a national strategy center for direct-care workers. Led then by Leonila Vega, DCA established a national caregiver credentialing program. It also developed advocacy campaigns and leadership training programs.

Among them is the Leonila Vega Voices Institute. These multi-day training periods help individuals develop their personal leadership and development skills. They also help “the little guy” learn to use his or her voice — both literally and figuratively — for the greater good.

Dudzinski declined to explain what specific strategies she and other DCA leaders might have for extending the group's existence. They're hoping that some kind of “strategic partnership or merger” with another organization will develop. On its website, DCA lists the following groups as possibilities to help DCA members and other direct care workers:

DCA has worked with union groups on various initiatives but they are not formally linked, Dudzinski said. Similarly, she says that long-term care institutional providers have been both supportive and less than 100% supportive at times. Some have clearly embraced the idea of bettering nursing aides' lot while others have seemed grudging about giving any more ground or empowerment than they've had to, Dudzinski acknowledged. Overall, it has been a positive experience, she believes.

No matter what happens in the coming months, the board chair is confident that the DCA mission will continue.

“I really don't think the movement is going to die,” Dudzinski said. “We have a core group of about 200 [Voices Institute] trained workers who believe in changing the system and will continue to advocate for themselves and their profession.”

Hearty souls, no doubt, for a difficult job.

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