Kevin Nerney of the Rhode Island Developmental Disabilities Council, left, and Maureen Gaynor, second from right, share pleasantries just before their testimony before the House Finance Committee on Feb. 8. Looking on are Gaynor's support worker, Melanie Monti, and Emmanuel Falck of the Service Employees International Union State Council. Image by RI Capitol TV.
By Gina Macris
Raising the pay of Rhode Islanders who serve adults with developmental disabilities is not only about helping these poverty-level workers pay their bills, according to testimony before the House Finance Committee Feb. 8.
The proposed raises also will reduce staff turnover and, in turn, improve the quality of life for some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens, Donna Martin, executive director of the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island (CPNRI), told the legislators.
Kerri Zanchi, the new director of the Division of Developmental Disabilities, agrees with Martin’s assessment. Zanchi says the pay hike is not only an “investment in the direct service professional, but an investment in our community" and in high quality services.
She estimates that the wage increase will amount to an average of 42 cents an hour, and says that provider agencies are now experiencing a staff turnover rate of about 33 percent.
Carol Dorros, the mother of a 21-year-old man with behavioral issues and other complex problems, knows firsthand the value of support staff retention. When her son was still in high school and receiving some adult services from a private agency, his support worker changed four times during a single academic year. As a result, he made “no progress” from September to June, Dorros said.
Maureen Gaynor rolled up to the speakers’ table in a power chair and used a computerized voice to speak the text she had written with a “headstick,” a pointer attached to a band around her head.
These people deserve higher pay, Gaynor said, explaining that support staff sometimes must help with the most intimate care, such as bathing, dressing and using the toilet.
And she reminded the legislators that she would not have been able to attend the hearing without an aide willing to drive her to the State House and get her to the basement hearing room.
After she spoke, Kevin Nerney of the Rhode Island Developmental Disabilities Council reinforced her remarks: “When you help someone eat, drink or bathe, you need to have a really good relationship with that person. We’re not talking about folding shirts at the Gap or flipping burgers at McDonald's,” said Nerney.
At AccessPoint RI, a service provider, the starting salary is $10 an hour, or $22,000 a year, said the agency’s executive director, Tom Kane. The average pay was $10.82 an hour until the current fiscal year, when the General Assembly set aside $5 million for raises for developmental disability workers – the first pay increases since 2006, Kane said.
The added funding resulted in a 36-cent hourly increase, raising the average to $11.18, according to calculations made by service providers and others.
When Kane reviewed the the roster of employees at the time his agency processed the raises last fall, he said he was heartbroken to find a 30-year employee who was to receive a total of $13.10, with the pay bump.
Kane and others indicated they believe that a “15 in 5” campaign to raise the pay of direct care workers to $15 in five years (by July 1, 2021), is simply not enough.
Kane alluded to a drive launched by State Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, last fall when he asked Governor Raimondo to include a raise for direct care workers in her budget proposal for the next fiscal year.. While she has done so, her $6.2 million set-aside for wages is about $$600,000 shy of what DiPalma requested.
Kane said raises should not only be based on a percentage increase.
“A four or five percent increase on an insufficient wage is an insufficient increase,” he said.
If the minimum wage increases to $10.50 an hour, as Governor Raimondo has proposed, “and we give 5 percent” raises, Kane said, “we’re paying minimum wage again.”
Kane took issue with figures presented by Linda Haley of the House Fiscal Staff that the raises in the current budget also bumped up pay for supervisory personnel.
He said the raises all went to direct care workers, (as stipulated in current state budget.) Some agencies, including AccessPoint, used other funding sources to provide raises or bonuses to supervisory employees.
At AccessPoint, Kane said, front-line supervisors spend half their time doing direct care anyway.
“It is incredibly important that this bill passes, hopefully with more money in it,” to support not only those providing direct care but people who perform other important tasks, like writing clients’ state-mandated individual support plans, which are akin to road maps for services that are specific to each client. Most of these employees “have not had a raise in 11 years,” he said. “I don’t know why they stay.”
Emmanuel Falck of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) State Council represents 270 workers at the Arc of Blackstone Valley. One of them, a 52- year-old woman with 20 years’ experience in the field, used to be able to make ends meet by working 60 to 65 hours a week, he said.
But after an 18-month bout with cancer, the most she can now work is 20 hours a week. And the last vacation she had was three days in Washington, D.C., in 2000, Falck said.
He said the proposed 42-cent increase to the hourly rate would be much appreciated, but the state needs to move faster to raise workers’ pay to a living wage.
“I urge this committee to bump it up as fast as possible,” he said, proposing a $15 hourly wage by 2019 instead of 2021. As it is, direct support workers living in Rhode Island will be able to cross the state line to neighboring Massachusetts and do the same work for $15 an hour on July 1, 2018, Falck said.
Donna Martin, the CPNRI director, said that developmental disability service providers face a “tremendous crisis” in competing for the same pool of workers who serve elderly clients, thanks to a growing number of aging baby-boomers.
On average, the 27 providers belonging to CPNRI cannot fill one in six job openings, creating a vacancy rate of about 16 percent, she said. During exit interviews, workers say that they love their jobs but can’t feed their families with what they are paid, according to Martin.
As a result of the vacancies, employers are forced to spend money on overtime that they would rather put into worker pay and training, Martin said.
“I appreciate your sensitivity to the struggles of our staff,” Martin told the finance committee members. “They are where the rubber meets the road when it comes to quality.”
Chris Semonelli of Middletown, the father of a 14-year-old girl with autism, put some historical context around the discussion of the wage proposal.
From 2006 through 2011, the budget for developmental disability services was reduced 20 percent, Semonelli said, quoting a profile of the system written by the Sherlock Center on Disabilities at Rhode Island College in 2013. And the services are not designed with an eye toward results. In the current design, more money gives more of the same service, he said.
That said, Semonelli said he strongly supports Governor Raimondo’s proposed wage increase in the next budget, as well as the “15 in 5” campaign. The governor’s plan for the next fiscal year “is a start,” said Semonelli, who also is co-director of an advocacy group called Friends of the Disabled on Aquidneck Island.
Although Wednesday’s hearing sounded like a budget discussion, it focused only on Article 23 – one of 24 chapters in the overall fiscal package Raimondo has submitted to the General Assembly.
The provision would require a one-time increase in the base pay of direct care workers, “in an amount to be determined by the appropriations process” and also require the Office of Management and Budget to perform an audit to ensure that the raises go only to those workers.