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Programs for people with disabilities struggle to find workers

The State of Colorado wants to increase the reimbursement rate it pays providers. The minimum rate is currently $15 per hour.

AURORA, Colo. — Programs for adults with disabilities in Colorado have a problem: they can't get enough workers to help the people they're supposed to be helping. 

At Community Living Alternatives' day program in Aurora, director Gregg Wilson knows this struggle too well. For years he's been trying to hire just two more staff members for his program. 

"It's frustrating. We could provide services to so many more people if we had the staff to support them," he said. "We are competing with fast food restaurants now because they're offering more money than we can."

His program serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. "This is a way to get out of a house and this is a way to get some experiences," Wilson said. He said the day program allows people to learn, play and socialize. 

"If someone learns how to do something as simple as tying their shoe – which we’ve taught here – or learning how to tell time or count money. Once we can teach them to do that and we know that they’re going to go off and have that skill, it’s amazing," he said.  

Wilson pays a $17 starting salary, which he said is on par with similar programs in the Denver area. "Our salaries are depending on the rates that we get from the state of Colorado," he explained. "So if there’s a rate increase, we can increase our salaries a little bit, but it’s been hard."

The state has the plan to try to help. It wants legislators to infuse $62 million into the program so it can raise its reimbursement rates to providers like the one Wilson runs. Last year, it raised base wage requirements from $12.41 to $15 per hour. 

"I don’t know if it’s enough," said Bonnie Silva, the state's director of the office of Community Living within the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing. "It’s something that we’re monitoring really closely."

She said the department is also offering training grants to organizations and individuals and plans to embark upon a public relations campaign to increase awareness of a profession that's often "in the shadows." 

So far, Wilson said his program has been lucky; he's had to limit the number of people he serves but has been able to keep the doors open. 

"If we lost another staff person, I'd probably have more grey hair," he said. "We want to keep our members here forever. We want them to grow old together with me and everyone else." 



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