Direct-care workers rally for raises

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State Sen. Marty Golden speaks to reporters at the July 15 City Hall rally. (Photo: Dan Rosenblum)

Anthony Martinez, a direct support professional at the Guild for Exceptional Children in Brooklyn, helps to dispense medication to patients with developmental disabilities, monitor their progress and teach them job training skills. While he’s dedicated to his clients, he said that over his 14-year career there, the wages he and his colleagues earn hasn’t kept pace with the city’s cost of living. 

“We’re living our lives to help another person live their life,” he said. “Meanwhile for us, it’s more difficult because we can barely sustain ourselves with the current wage we have right now.”

Many of his peers across New York state have left their jobs because of stagnant wages. “Before the recession, it was manageable,” Martinez said. “But ever since the recession hit, the state has been continuing to cut costs toward nonprofit agencies, and it’s been increasingly more difficult as the years go by.”

He was one of dozens of advocates and front-line workers who attended a Friday rally at City Hall to urge Albany legislators to raise the wages of some 80,000 full- and part-time direct-care workers who dispense medication, teach life skills, support patients’ day-to-day lives, perform life-saving measures when necessary and document services for Medicaid reimbursements for about 143,000 people statewide. 

The #bFair2DirectCare coalition – composed of 135 nonprofit organizations across the New York area who serve people with autism, brain injury, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and other disabilities – also asked Governor Andrew Cuomo to pass legislation that would prompt the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities to generate a report on the issue. 

The low wages are helping drive a 9 percent vacancy rate and a 25 percent annual turnover rate among the therapists, drivers, cooks and teacher aids who earn an average starting salary of $11 an hour. Because of the shortage, providers have asked employees to work an average of 6 million hours of overtime over the past year. 

The rally’s organizers – which include the Interagency Council of Developmental Disabilities Agencies, the New York State Rehabilitation Association, the Cerebral Palsy Associations of New York State and the New York State Association of Community Residential Agencies – said there’s been only one rate increase since 2008, averaging to 0.5 percent annually.

Many of the providers are predominantly supported by state and federal Medicaid funding, much of which is directed to staffing costs. City workers’ hourly minimum wages will rise to $15 by the end of 2018, but advocates said they needed to earn more than base level pay to improve retention. That increase will cost providers $180 million over that period, according to state Sen. Martin Golden, a Republican of Brooklyn. 

“Nobody even expects how large this time bomb will be, but it will be big and we are not prepared for it,” he said. “And that’s why this study is important and necessary.”

He urged Cuomo to sign a bill passed in June by both houses of the Legislature that would require the OPWDD and state Health Commissioner to study and report on the recruitment and retention of direct support staff by Nov. 1. 

The governor’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the bill or the funding issues.

The OPWDD budget for the fiscal year that started in April increased by 4.3 percent to $4.2 billion, but didn’t include additional funding for the sought after wage increases, said David Weprin, a Queens Democrat who chairs the State Assembly’s Task Force for People with Disabilities. 

He said direct-care staffers must be skilled workers who balance compassion with responsibility. 

“By providing direct-care workers with a fair wage, we not only help to ease the burden for those who provide support to New Yorkers with disabilities, but also guarantee a consistent level of care for individuals with developmental disabilities,” he said.

Elly Rufer, whose daughter Katie has a seizure disorder and lives in a residence, said her daughter was well-served by the staff who help her take medication and perform other daily tasks. “These are people who have chosen to work with my child and others like her,” she said. “If they can’t make a living they will have to leave. Every staff turnover is a loss for Katie. Every disappearance is like a death in the family.”

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