The inability of many Orange County nonprofit organizations to pay living wages to their staffs is taking its toll.

It’s a major hurdle for Costa Mesa-based Project Independence, which serves Orange County residents with developmental disabilities. I recently spoke with a parent of a young man with intellectual/developmental disabilities (I/DD) after yet another beloved long-term staff member of Project Independence resigned. Her son exhibits challenging and sometimes aggressive behaviors. He is diagnosed with autism and his coping skills with frustration and communication are limited. The critical component that makes a life of dignity and inclusion in his community possible are well-trained and competent staff members who listen and understand him. His support staff must wear many hats: Advocate, teacher, behaviorist, job coach. They must be able to help navigate the many challenges of our complex world daily.

So why did our long-term staff member resign? It’s both simple and devastating. He can’t afford to live on a wage equal to or less than he would be paid at entry level at nearly every other employer in Orange County. And we can’t afford to pay him what he deserves.

Project Independence has a 40-year history of excellence serving people with developmental disabilities. Under the Lanterman Act, they are all guaranteed the supports they need so that they can live, work and recreate with their non-disabled peers.

But they’re not always getting the rights the Act guarantees.  Most, if not all day programs have long waitlists because of our inability to attract and retain quality staff. With rates frozen since 2006, we have been unable to absorb the high cost of insurance, health care, building leases, IT, fuel and training. We have raised pay, but now lose money on some services we provide, in order to keep the dominoes from falling. Once we paid $4- $5 more an hour than minimum wage. Now our $11.50 an hour starting wage is laughable in such an expensive and competitive county. Imagine trying to live on that wage. Even if you love your work you couldn’t do it.

It is unconscionable our legislators don’t recognize the value of staffs like ours and prevent them from being marginalized into poverty. As we move people with I/DD challenges out of large facilities statewide, such as Fairview Developmental Center, we cannot forget the promise of the Lanterman Act.

A living wage for the key people making that promise a reality is all we ask. Our staff and our community deserve no less. Please call your representative. Demand this be corrected so we keep this vital system of support available to our most vulnerable.

Debra Marsteller

President and CEO

Project Independence