By Gina Macris
Rhode Island Senate leaders have announced a five-year drive to lift wages of caregivers for adults with developmental disabilities to $15 an hour, with the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee saying Oct. 28 that the existing labor force is “so tenuous it is on the verge of collapse.”
At a press conference in Warwick, Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, the architect of the plan, said it would start with an additional $6.8 million in Medicaid funding – half of it state revenue- in the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2017.
The plan also calls for legislation that would commit the state to additional wage increases in each of the following four fiscal years, although the total cost has yet to be determined, DiPalma said.
The General Assembly added $5 million in Medicaid funding to the current budget late in the 2016 legislative session, under pressure from Governor Gina Raimondo and from a federal court order reinforcing a consent decree mandating integration of individuals with developmental disabilities.
The U.S. Department of Justice and an independent court monitor had expressed concern that low salaries prevented service agencies from attracting workers with the necessary skills to implement the consent decree.
The $5 million added to the current budget – including $2.5 million in state funds - raises the average worker’s hourly wage by 36 cents, from $10.82 to $11.18, according to DiPalma. The $6.8 million in the next budget would add another 76 cents, for a new average hourly rate of $11.94, he said.
Similar yearly hikes would be needed during the following four years to reach $15 an hour, DiPalma said, although the increments do not have to be evenly divided as long as the state reaches the goal by July 1, 2021, the start of the 2022 fiscal year.
He plans to introduce legislation in the next session of the General Assembly calling for raises over multiple years.
The effort has the support of the Senate President, Teresa Paiva Weed, and the Senate Finance Committee Chairman, Daniel DaPonte. DiPalma is first vice-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Late Friday, David Ortiz, press secretary to Governor Raimondo, said that while the current budget gave workers their first raise in several years, “we must do more to stay competitive with neighboring states. “
“The Governor looks forward to partnering with Senator DiPalma and Senate President Paiva Weed to continue to invest in better outcomes for families and help ensure all of our workers can make it in Rhode Island,” Ortiz said.
Massachusetts has agreed to pay personal care attendants a minimum of $15 an hour by 2018. Enacted in 2015, it was the first such state-wide agreement in the nation.
New York recently adopted legislation spelling out a multi-year plan to phase in a $15 minimum wage for all workers, with different schedules for various regions of the state.
In a statement in Warwick Friday, DaPonte said that DiPalma’s plan “addresses an important part of the wage inequity problem, and helps improve outcomes for the individuals they serve.
“At the same time, we need to continue to review the methodology for compensating all those direct care workers who serve our children, homebound elderly, and individuals with disabilities through other types of provider agencies,” he said.
During the press conference at West Bay Residential Services on Knight Street, DaPonte talked about a constituent who approached him at his son’s soccer game and complained that his recently-widowed, elderly mother was not receiving the 20 hours of home care to which she was entitled.
The constituent wanted DaPonte to introduce legislation to require home health aides to show up on the job.
But DaPonte said he told the man that the workers were so poorly paid the agencies “can’t find people to show up.”
“Now we’re at the point where the system is so tenuous it’s on the verge of collapse,” he told an audience of about 50 that filled a conference room at the headquarters of the agency, which specializes in support for individuals with significant physical limitations.
Data shows Pay Inequities, Particularly for Women
DiPalma’s plan emerged from a four-month long study that showed stark inequities in the pay of direct care workers since the General Assembly cut a total of $26 million from the developmental disability budget in the fiscal year that began July 1, 2011.
With that sweeping action, workers saw double-digit pay cuts, to an average of $10.65 an hour, according to DiPalma’s data. At the time, the minimum wage was $3.25 lower, or $7.40 an hour.
Since then, however, the state’s minimum wage has increased 30 percent, to $9.60 an hour, while the average pay of direct care workers has remained stagnant.
In the fiscal year which ended June 30, Rhode Island’s direct care workers made an hourly average of $10.82 an hour, while those doing comparable work in Massachusetts were paid $13.02, and those in Connecticut made $12.19, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor.
The figures pertain to employees of private agencies providing direct care. In Rhode Island, a parallel, state-run system pays its entry-level workers $17.15 an hour, for an annual salary of $35,668. These workers also get thestate employee benefits package, according to DiPalma’s statistics.
With longevity, the average direct care worker in the state system makes $42,278 a year, he said.
DiPalma also presented the results of a 2015 survey of direct care workers conducted in 2015 by the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island, an association made up of most of some three dozen private agencies in Rhode Island that serve about 4000 adults with developmental disabilities.
With 1,439 responses, the survey found that:
- More than half the workers were female heads of households
- · Many received food stamps and other government assistance geared toward low-income workers
- ·87 percent worked fulltime
- ·41 percent worked more than one job to make ends meet
- · 62 percent said they want to leave the developmental disabilities field because of the low pay
The turnover among employees of private agencies is 33 percent a year, three times the turnover rate of 11 percent in the parallel state-run system, according to DiPalma’s study.
Higher wages would mean greater stability and improved performance in the workforce, DiPalma said.
Picking up where DiPalma left off, the director of the Sherlock Center on Disabilities at Rhode Island College said research shows those two factors correlate with a better quality of life for the recipients of support services.
Anthony Antosh said a better quality of life is measured by improved health and safety, more interpersonal relationships and greater self-determination among individuals with developmental disabilities.
Jim Petrone, who receives support from West Bay Residential Services, used a communication board to tell the audience that he could not have made it through a health crisis in 2015 without the support of his staff and family.
“Now I have a second chance at life,” he said.
Diane Scott, who has worked at West Bay Residential Services for 26 years, reminded the audience that those who provide direct care come to learn the most intimate details about a person’s life.
“Imagine,” she said, “if staff showered you or bathed you.”
“No sooner do you decide to trust these staff than they continue to leave. Regulars work extra hours to compensate for yet another staff vacancy,” Scott said.
Antosh said direct care workers should be treated not as short-term custodial staff but as professionals, who are on a career ladder, and who provide comprehensive support to people with very complex needs.
THREE-STATE COMPARISON OF MINIMUM WAGE AND HOURLY RATE FOR ATTENDANTS
CHART COURTESY OF RI SENATE