- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 12, 2014

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - The Cuomo administration has proposed keeping pay flat for the sixth straight year for caretakers of the disabled and others at state-funded nonprofits.

Most Assembly members, in response, have signed a letter calling for the 2 percent cost-of-living increase in the final negotiated budget for the next fiscal year. They say that continuing the already low pay forces many staff to work unsafe amounts of overtime or take second jobs.

Advocates say that also erodes care for the vulnerable people in the nonprofits’ group homes and programs because of attrition and turnover.

“In a perfect world people should get a raise when they deserve a raise. It’s not a perfect world. It’s not a perfect economy,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday. “We’re trying to reduce costs for the state. We’re trying to spur the economy. Would it be nice if everybody got a raise every year? Yes.”

The administration estimates saving $76 million by deferring the 2 percent increase for human services workers, part of its effort to keep overall state spending increases annually below 2 percent. It will affect about 5,200 community-based programs operated by nonprofits in the statewide service system for mental hygiene, according to the Budget Division.

The administration’s longer-term financial plan currently assumes adding raises the following three years.

Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg, a Long Island Democrat, said lawmakers enacted a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, in the 2006 budget for nonprofit providers licensed by six state agencies, but it has been eliminated nearly every year since. Budgets are negotiated between legislative leaders and governor’s office. In a letter to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver this week, endorsed by 101 colleagues or two-thirds of the Assembly, he asked they put the raise back for the fiscal year that starts in April.

The six agencies are the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, Office of Mental Health, Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuses Services, Department of Health, Office of Children and Family Services and State Office for the Aging.

“Collectively, these individuals provide vital quality-of-life service for those who are truly unable to care for themselves due to developmental disabilities, mental health issues, debilitating diseases and other physical limitations,” Weisenberg wrote. “The low salaries, coupled with the absence of a COLA, have had a devastating impact on job retention in these positions.”

Michael Whyland, spokesman for the Assembly speaker, said Wednesday the workers are low-paid and do difficult jobs. “We want to make sure they are compensated adequately. We’re going to take a look at what we can do within the context of the overall budget. We should not shortchange these workers,” he said.

Allison Sesso, deputy executive director of the Human Services Council, said they don’t know how many workers are affected statewide, but it’s in the thousands and ranges from cooks to social workers in a profession where few people make more than $40,000 a year.

Tiffany Williams, 34, a housing specialist for Barrier Free Living, which finds housing for disabled clients in New York City, said she’s been working there 10 years, had one raise in the last five years and makes $39,000 before taxes. Between helping clients, paperwork and limited staffing, she said work weeks can go 80 hours. “I’m in a rented room. I cannot afford an apartment. ConEd went up 20 percent. I try to let my clients know I’m going through the same thing.”

“It’s unconscionable,” said state Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk, ranking Democrat on the Senate Mental Health Committee. She raised the same issue with agency officials at budget hearings Monday. “We can’t expect to get people who want to work in this field. We can’t expect them to work for subpar wages. They need to earn enough to take care of their own families.”

Ron Soloway, managing director of government and external relations for UJA Federation of New York, said people in the field are underpaid and have not received raises on the other side of the Great Recession unlike workers in health and education.

“People doing God’s work for us can’t do it on pennies,” Soloway said of the federation’s 100 affiliated service agencies. “We’re hoping the governor’s prepared to open up a discussion.”

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