Albany rally urges funding for better wages

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People with developmental disabilities, their caregivers, family members, and lawmakers held a rally in Albany to urge Governor Andrew Cuomo to provide money so that organizations like The Resource Center can pay their direct-support workforce a living wage.

The rally at the State Capitol is part of a campaign called #bFair2DirectCare. Organizers want New York State to provide an additional $45 million in funding in each of the next six years. The increased funding is necessary in order to combat growing vacancies and rising staff turnover at agencies like TRC. Advocates say it has been eight years since New York State provided a significant wage adjustment for Direct Support Professionals, and the rising minimum wage means people can earn more money at other jobs (such as working at a fast-food restaurant) than they can earn caring for people with disabilities.

Click here to read a story about the rally, and click here to see a television interview about the wage issue.

Here’s a press release about the Albany rally:

ALBANY, NY – The #bFair2DirectCare Coalition, joined by legends of the Legislature, current elected officials of both parties, numerous self-advocates and people who support New Yorkers with developmental disabilities, gathered today at the FDR exhibit in the New York State Capitol and called on Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers to make a much-needed state investment to provide a living wage for direct support workers in the upcoming state budget.

Using living wage metrics that identify the minimum full time salary for meeting the basic necessities, the #bFair2DirectCare coalition said $45 million in new state funds for each of the next six years, that would be matched by federal funds, would help them achieve Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s dream of a living wage for Direct Support Professionals.

“This is a small investment for the state but it will have a tremendously positive impact on people who do very important and difficult work,” said Michael Seereiter, President & CEO of the New York State Rehabilitation Association, who added that organizations that support individuals with developmental disabilities have seen only one salary rate increase since the recession of 2008, an average salary increase of less than one-half of one percent per year.

“The investment we request can help turn the tide and Governor Cuomo can be a leader in improving the lives of people with developmental disabilities and at the same time provide a living wage for tens of thousands of hard working New Yorkers,” Seereiter said.

In making today’s announcement, the #bFair2DirectCare Coalition was joined by former Assemblymen Harvey Weisenberg, a Long Island Democrat, and former U.S. Representative and Assembly Minority Leader Tom Reynolds of Western New York. Both have sons with developmental disabilities and have been long-time passionate advocates for people with developmental disabilities. Weisenberg is founder of the Harvey and Ellen Weisenberg Foundation, which advocates for people with special needs. While in Congress, Reynolds was instrumental in helping to create the Thomas Reynolds Center for Special Education at Daemen College.

Former Assemblyman Weisenberg said: “For half a century – since God gave Ellen and me our special child, our angel – we, and now I, have been on a mission to advocate for children and families with special needs. People with special needs deserve dignity, respect and a safe environment with trained professionals to help and support these amazing New Yorkers alongside their families. The current crisis with staffing is becoming even more critical. Insufficient funding for DSP salaries is exacerbating vacancy rates, turnover and overtime costs, and most of all I worry about how it will affect the people being cared for. This can be easily fixed and I am hopeful that Governor Cuomo will show his leadership and be a true hero for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers and their families.”

Former Minority Leader Reynolds said: “New York has long been a national leader in its care and support of people with developmental disabilities. We need to help the Governor and State Legislature understand that while raising the minimum wage was the first step for improving wages, the second part of the job is to help provider agencies – which depend on government for 90 percent of their funding, and 80 percent of their budget goes directly to wages for staff who serve New Yorkers with developmental disabilities – pay their staffs a living wage.  If the state doesn’t increase funding it is New Yorkers with developmental disabilities who will directly suffer because of shrinking programs, services and support. The Governor and Legislature must finish the job to protect and support our most vulnerable citizens.”

Today’s news conference was held in the state Capitol amid an exhibit extolling New York’s leading role in creating the minimum wage and wage fairness in the United States. The exhibit includes this quote from FDR: “By living wages, I mean more than a bare subsistence level – I mean the wages of a decent living.” (1933, Statement on National Recovery Act)

The exhibit also quotes Gov. Mario Cuomo’s “New York Idea,” in which government uses the proceeds of economic growth “so that we can take care of those who will never be able to care for themselves.”

“We hope New York today will read these words and see that more work is needed to achieve the vision of these great leaders,” said Ann Hardiman, Executive Director of the New York State Association of Community and Residential Agencies. “That’s why we have been across this state, here today and in more places in the coming months. FDR and Mario Cuomo were right.”

Over the last eight months, the #bFair2DirectCare Coalition has held rallies and other events across the state to educate the public about the looming crisis created by rising costs, the lack of funding support, new federal overtime rules, recruiting and retention difficulty in an economy with lower unemployment, and growing competition from other employers, like big box stores, that are raising wages across the board.

Steven Kroll, Executive Director of NYSARC, said: “Recent legislation to raise the minimum wage is not enough.  For those that earn a few cents above the new minimum wage (between $9.70 and $11.00 on 12/31/16, depending on the region of the State) there is no help coming.  The new minimum wage, if funded by the State, will bring some employees up to the bare minimum, but there is no increase for most of our staff and certainly no pathway to a living wage.”

Two weeks ago the Coalition launched a digital billboard in Times Square engaging the public in its campaign. The billboard can be seen on the #bFair2DirecCare Facebook page here.

More than 90 percent of the funding that sustains these organizations comes from government, and 80 percent of that goes directly to wages for staff who care for New Yorkers with developmental disabilities, including autism, serious brain injury, cerebral palsy, and Down syndrome.

The only way that these organizations can raise wages for direct support professionals, teachers’ aides, drivers, cooks and others making minimum wage, or a little bit more, is for government to increase the rates they provide for the delivery of these critical services to New York’s most vulnerable citizens.

Seth Stein, Executive Director, Alliance of Long Island Agencies, said: “The New York State developmental disabilities service system working in communities across New York State is considered a national model. Yet today the looming wage crisis threatens our organizations and the availability of services to the people we support.”

Richard Bosch, Interim Executive Director of the InterAgency Council of Developmental Disabilities Agencies, said: “We support living wages for our employees but our hands are tied by the state funding formula. We provide services on behalf of the state and the state sets our rates. The state needs to step up or else people will lose their jobs, potentially putting at risk those who need our support.”

Susan Constantino, President and CEO of Cerebral Palsy Associations of New York State, said: “Direct Support Professionals, special education teaching assistants and other support staff such as cooks and drivers and are not being paid a living wage. Statewide starting salaries average between $9.62 and $10.78.  The jobs are complex and challenging and the pay is low. These hard working New Yorkers deserve a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.”

Steve Holmes, Administrator of the-Self Advocacy Association of New York State, said: “Direct Support Professionals are the multi skilled individuals in each agency with a deep sense of responsibility and the genuine desire to help people live, work and thrive in our communities. It’s up to all of us to make sure that DSPs are paid a living wage so they too can thrive.”

Rhonda Frederick, President of the Developmental Disabilities Alliance of Western New York, said: “As a parent of a child with development disabilities, Tom Reynolds knows the challenging times our system of care is facing. He and other parents face it regularly. We applaud him for advocating for the #bFair2DirectCare campaign.  We support New Yorkers with autism, serious brain injury, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities on behalf of the state. Government controls our funding. The staffing crisis we’re facing can be addressed only if Albany steps up and provides the resources we all need to best care for the people who need us.”

Three weeks ago, Governor Cuomo vetoed legislation that was designed to identify the causes of high vacancy and turnover rates of direct care professionals (DSPs) who work in these not-for-profit agencies.

In his veto message, Governor Cuomo said, “it is undisputed that DSPs provide essential services.” He further discussed identifying additional steps “the State can take to ensure that DSPs can continue to provide such valuable services.”

According to a 2016 Vacancy and Turnover Survey recently provided by the coalition to the Governor’s Office and the Office of Persons with Developmental Disabilities, competition from other employers has increased to the point where coalition agencies currently have a nearly 10 percent vacancy rate and more than a 20 percent turnover rate in these important jobs – a significant increase in both vacancies and turnover in just the last year.

As the #bFair2DirectCare Coalition has demonstrated over the last several months, providers of supports and services for New Yorkers with developmental disabilities face a perfect storm of inadequate funding, new laws and policies that threaten community integration, the level of support and the civil rights that people with disabilities have achieved.

Members of the #bFair2DirectCare coalition include Alliance of Long Island Agencies, Cerebral Palsy Associations of New York State, The Developmental Disability Alliance of Western New York, Direct Service Providers of New York State, The InterAgency Council of Developmental Disabilities Agencies, The NYS Association of Community and Residential Agencies, NYSARC Inc., New York State Rehabilitation Association and the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State.

People can keep up with the latest info from the #bFair2DirectCare campaign via social media:

Twitter:           @Fair2DirectCare
Hashtag:          #bFair2DirectCare

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