Lexington lobbies for funding to give raises

GLOVERSVILLE – As adoption of another state budget nears, Lexington Center continues to lobby, along with its support groups, for raises for the center’s 1,000 direct care workers it feels are long overdue.

“Lexington is very supportive of these efforts, as we are in our fifth year in a row that we will not receive an increase in funding in the proposed state budget,” said Wally Hart, Lexington’s division director for business and community development. “We have actually had over $5 million in funding cuts in those same years. Our employees have done a tremendous job to cut expenses, but without funding increases, we are not able to increase pay to our employees.”

Hart said the average direct support staff makes about $10 per hour. He said the starting rate is $9.36 per hour, going up 25 cents after certification.

He noted Lexington starts such workers above the minimum wage.

The minimum wage was at $7.25. The $8 minimum wage went into effect Dec. 31 and will increase to $8.75 at the end of the year.

But even with the minimum wage going to $9 per hour at the end of 2015, he said Lexington doesn’t have a way to pay the existing staff receiving $9 per hour the extra $1.75 they also deserve.

Two of the groups lobbying the state Legislature for more pay for direct care workers are the NYSARC Inc. and the Cerebral Palsy Association of New York state. The NYSARC is America’s largest non-profit organization supporting people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities and their families since 1949.

Hart said these two groups, as well as Lexington Center, have an important message for state legislators this time. The message is: “Don’t ignore workers caring for people with developmental disabilities.”

“We can’t give wage increases because we can’t afford to give wage increases,” said Lexington Center Executive Director Shaloni Winston.

She said Lexington has about 1,000 direct support workers and although Cost of Living increases, or COLAs, have been proposed sometimes, they do not always include direct support workers serving people with developmental disabilities. She said her employees need a financial break that can only be afforded by overall increases placed in the final 2014-15 state budget.

“Absolutely, with inflation costs going up, we haven’t done a wage increase in so many years,” Winston stated.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not included a wage increase for those who care for people with developmental disabilities since taking office. Groups like Lexington are maintaining that during that time, direct support staff have seen their purchasing power eroded by more than 8 percent, once the effect of the state’s Consumer Price Index is taken into account. NYSARC officials say that basically amounts to a pay cut for employees at Lexington.

According to a joint news release from NYSARC and CP of NYS, the two family-founded statewide organizations that support people with disabilities are currently urging legislators to include a 3 percent wage increase for direct support workers caring for people with developmental disabilities in the state budget.

Hart said nearly 100 percent of Lexington’s $85 million annual budget is state-funded.

“There’s no questions it’s a big operation,” he said.

Hart said he tries to explain to co-workers that Lexington doesn’t “sell anything,” so the local ARC chapter is extremely reliant on state support.

He said that both the state Assembly and the state Senate are currently considering COLAs in the state budget that may assist the direct support staff. He said the Assembly definitely wants a 2 percent hike, but the Senate “hasn’t been quite as clear,” about what it wants – possibly 1 percent.

“There are 700 providers in New York state that receive funding this way,” Hart said.

Lexington’s only compensation has been through some savings the last few years, but Hart said even that’s wearing thin. He said “there’s no more to squeeze” out of the budget.

He said Lexington doesn’t want direct care staff to be tired and fall asleep on the job because they’re exhausted from working a second job to make ends meet.

“A number of our people work two jobs,” Hart said. “That’s what we’re so concerned about,” Hart said. “We’re supporting people who depend on us.”

The support groups feel the increased wages are in order.

“Our direct support staff provides the hands-on care essential to the health, safety, inclusion and protection of our most vulnerable citizens, yet they are near the bottom of the wage scale and most have not received a wage increase in 4 years,” NYSARC Inc. Executive Director Marc Brandt said in the release.

Brandt added, “With the establishment of the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, the governor made protection of people with developmental disabilities a top priority. Yet the governor’s budget denies those who are the foundation of protecting people with developmental disabilities any wage increase for four years in a row.”

“These workers must be highly trained, work long hours and perform extremely difficult work,” Cerebral Palsy Associations of New York State President and CEO Susan Constantino said in the release. “They bear enormous responsibility for the lives of the people they care for. The low wages make it increasingly difficult for non-profit agencies to recruit and retain those so critical to the health and wellbeing of our most vulnerable citizens.”

Brandt said direct support workers are paid a salary which may not be much more than the minimum wage, forcing many to work more than one job. That puts them and their families under ever greater strain and can undermine their ability to care for the people with developmental disabilities who depend on them, he said.

The release added that this inadequate pay issue is in the “national spotlight,” with President Barack Obama, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and others from both major political parties recognizing the needs of low wage workers, their families and the people they serve.

“No funding for wages is wrong,” Constantino said. “It’s unfair to the workers, their families and most importantly to people with developmental disabilities. It undermines the state’s promise to families, legislators and the federal government to fully include and protect people with developmental disabilities in New York state’s communities.”

Hart said that despite the salary situation at Lexington the last few years, staff has been fairly faithful in staying.

“Our turnovers are actually pretty low,” he said. “We’re concerned that’s going to become a bigger issue.”