12/18/2012 09:43 am ET Updated Feb 17, 2013

A Stable Workforce Is Essential for People With Disabilities

Nearly one year ago, the U.S. Department of Labor proposed that the people who provide support for people with disabilities and elders should be guaranteed at least minimum wage and overtime for the work they do. Currently, these workers are exempt from these labor protections, which are provided to most workers under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

For people with disabilities, direct-care staff are essential to our ability to live independently. They provide all sorts of help -- from making it possible for us to work to assisting with the functioning of our homes and doing what it takes to help us get to civic and social events, places of worship and school.

"As someone who has used personal care aide (PCA) services for over 20 years," says Scott Goyette of Vermont, "I can state unequivocally that quality, reliable PCA care directly affects my own quality of life. My ability to be an active, contributing member of the community is made possible by the invaluable work of my PCAs."

Our direct-care staff are people who must, in many cases, deal with the unpredictability of our health and needs, basic bodily functions and frustrations with our situations. We must often rely on their skills and compassion to watch out for threats to our safety. We count on them to show up, leave their troubles at home and navigate with us through our days, responding to what we ask of them when we are at our most vulnerable.

Christina Battista of Rhode Island, notes, "Without my PCA's assistance, I would not have been able to go to college and get my bachelor's degree in psychology, work as a cross-disability coordinator and volunteer on many of the boards and committees that I do. My life would not be as rewarding as it is today."

Christina and Scott are members of the National Participant Network (NPN), an organization of people who direct their own long- term services and supports. The NPN aims to improve the lives of people with disabilities. We strongly believe this means that all people must be honored for what they contribute to society. And that includes the PCAs who support us every day.

To consider PCAs not worthy of the labor protections afforded to almost every other worker is an insult. It says that our society believes that those who care for us -- as well as our relatives and our friends -- day in and day out are not as valued as those who prepare fast food and perform other "minimum wage" jobs. And it reflects the idea that those who need direct-care staff are less important than french fries.

Christina explains, "My personal care assistant and I have been together for several years, because she was able to support herself with the full-time living wages she earns. If she were to receive less than minimum wage, she would not be able to work for me any longer. Because of her longevity in her job, we have a relationship. She is able to make me comfortable with highly sensitive areas of support, such as personal hygiene and finances. I wouldn't trust someone I didn't know as well."

With the ever-increasing need for long term care as our nation ages, it makes sense to cultivate the people on whom we will depend. After all, our nation will need 5 million direct-care staff by 2020, more direct-care workers than nurses or teachers, according to PHI (the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute.)

We want them to bring their best to the job and even consider it as a career. In some cases, all that is needed is someone to watch for seizures in the night, or to make sure Mom doesn't get lost on the way to the grocery store. But regardless of the specific task, direct-care staff make a commitment to helping each one of us live the life we want -- and for that they should be paid fairly.

"Direct care is a viable, stimulating profession and shouldn't be treated as less by paying below legal minimum wage," says Stevie Bass, an NPN member in New Mexico who has a daughter with multiple disabilities. "Direct-care work offers the opportunity for personal growth and long-term stable employment and satisfaction for the worker. However, direct-care staff cannot remain in these jobs without a good legal living wage."

Direct-care staff are indispensable to all NPN members. As Scott says, "paying less than minimum wage -- and denying overtime where applicable -- makes no sense for PCAs, participants or the communities in which they live."

Now that President Obama has been reelected, it is time to follow through on his administration's promise to ensure that personal care workers receive minimum wage and overtime protections. It's the right thing to do -- for our workers and for us.