State legislators push for raises for direct care workers who serve people with disabilities

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 17 March 2017 at 10:57 am

‘We’re having a staffing crisis because we’re not funded to pay them more than a fast food worker.’ Donna Saskowski, executive director of the Arc of Genesee Orleans

The State Senate and Assembly have both put in an additional $45 million in the state budget for pay increases for direct care workers for people with disabilities.

The raises are needed to stabilize the workforces for many agencies that serve people with disabilities, said Donna Saskowski, executive director of the newly merged Arc of Genesee Orleans.

Donna Saskowski

“We’re having a staffing crisis because we’re not funded to pay them more than a fast food worker,” Saskowski said.

The ARC chapters and other agencies that serve people with disabilities receive much of their funding from the state. Saskowski said state increases have lagged in recent years, making it difficult for the agencies to state competitive with their wages.

The ARC chapters are losing some workers to fast food, department stores and other industries, sometimes for entry level positions. That doesn’t seem right to Saskowski, who said her employees are making less money despite the need for more training and responsibility in their direct care jobs.

She is hopeful Gov. Andrew Cuomo will keep the additional $45 million in the budget.

The Arc of Genesee Orleans has more than 500 employees. Satkowski said many of them are so dedicated to the agency they have picked up second jobs so they can continue to serve people with disabilities. The pay increase would be a big boost for the workers and their familes, she said.

State Senator Rob Ortt (R-North Tonawanda) is chairman of the Senate’s Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Committee. He announced on Thursday the Senate Republican Majority’s 2017-18 budget plan includes $45 million to support wage increases for direct care professionals.

“This is a tremendous step on an issue that is very dear to me – one that we have been working on diligently over the past year,” he said. “Senate Republicans are standing shoulder to shoulder with direct care professionals, individuals in the disability community, and nonprofit agencies who care for our most vulnerable population across the state. These employees deserve a fair living wage, and we will continue to fight for them in our state capital. This goes beyond the state’s fiscal obligation to these providers – it’s a moral imperative to help those most in need and we cannot leave them behind.”

Direct care professionals provide critical state services for individuals with autism, serious brain injury, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and other developmental and intellectual disabilities, Ortt said.

Currently, direct service professionals earn an average of $10-$13 per hour – just above the state’s minimum wage. To adequately meet the needs of direct care workers, the proposal provides $45 million annually to help ensure competitive salaries while reducing turnover rates and overtime costs for the nonprofits, and recruit qualified staff for the difficult work. Without new funding for direct care workers, the salary gap with minimum wage workers will lead to increased vacancies in the field as qualified individuals seek less strenuous work, such as in the fast food industry, Ortt said.

“We have lost people to better paying jobs,” Saskowski said today. “We’re looking for a fair wage.”

A final state budget is expected to be adopted by April 1.

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