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Agencies that care for developmentally disabled seek wage increase for lowest paid workers

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Nonprofit agencies that care for the developmentally disabled are pushing the state to increase funding so they can boost the wages of direct-care workers who are in their fifth year without a cost of living increase.

“It takes people to care for people,” said Daphne A. Pickert, executive director of St. Lawrence NYSARC. “We are in a deficit.”

The effort for a 3 percent cost of living adjustment for the lowest paid workers has the support of both state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, and Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa.

“They have a tough job and they’re not paid a lot. I think 3 percent would be a big deal for them,” Mrs. Ritchie said. “It’s something we’re going to work to resolve. I think there is support from some of my colleagues. We’ve talked about it.”

Mrs. Russell said she has been pushing the measure in the Assembly.

“We cannot delay their COLA any longer,” she said. “We’re working to catch up to fund what we should have done five years ago when the recession hit.”

Jefferson Rehabilitation Center Executive Director Howard W. Ganter said of the 76,000 direct support professionals throughout the state, 325 work for JRC.

“The issue is our direct support professionals are just slightly above minimum wage when they start out,” Mr. Ganter said. “Minimum wage goes up to $8.75 at the end of the year. This 3 percent would be helpful to continue to provide salary enhancements.”

The average wage increase would be 30 to 40 cents per hour, he said.

“It’s an ongoing challenge to recruit and train people,” said Anne F. Richey, executive director of Cerebral Palsy Association of the North Country. “Our direct support workers are responsible for a lot, including health and safety, and are often the lowest paid.”

The job often has physical demands, Mr. Ganter said.

“It’s a rather complex job, even on the entry level,” he said. “It’s a huge amount of training, with medication certification, and it goes on and on and on.”

At the same time they work to keep trained employees, agencies such as NYSARC and Cerebral Palsy have had recent funding cuts.

“It’s catching up to us big-time,” Ms. Pickert said.

While her agency has dealt with the loss of funding through attrition, shrinking over the last year from 612 employees to 590, mostly in administration, it wants to boost the spending power of those who usually start at the lower end of the salary scale.

“There’s no way without a cost-of-living adjustment to push these wages up to where they need to be,” Ms. Pickert said. “Everything else has gone up.”

Over the last few years, the workers’ cost of living has risen 8 percent, so not having a pay increase amounts to a pay cut.

The lobbying effort comes as the state Legislature is in budget deliberations.

“No funding for wages is wrong. It’s unfair to the workers, their families and most importantly to people with development disabilities,” Marc N. Brandt, executive director of NYSARC, said in a statement.

The agencies are heavily dependent on Medicaid funding, which complicates the financial picture, especially since the state has been saddled by a federal probe into supposed overpayments over a number of years of more than $15 billion.

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