Commentary: Direct-care vacancies put vulnerable New Yorkers at risk

February 09, 2023

Originally published in Times Union on February 09, 2023.

In her State of the State address last month, Gov. Kathy Hochul quoted the great Frances Perkins — the former New York labor commissioner under Gov. Franklin Delano Roosevelt who would serve in the same capacity during FDR’s presidency — stating, “A government should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.”

To realize this goal we must address the crisis facing New Yorkers with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), their families, and those who care for them.

As a state senator and chairman of the Senate Committee on Disabilities, I understand our fundamental responsibility to work to improve the lives of those we represent — especially our most vulnerable populations.

Egregiously low wages and years of underfunding has left the I/DD care services system in crisis. According to a recent survey from the New York Disability Advocates, there are currently 19,788 vacant direct-care positions in New York state that the nonprofit sector has been unable to fill. That’s a staggering amount of vacancies for any sector, and especially significant for one that provides life-supporting care.

The I/DD community relies on direct-support professionals to provide important practical and personal support such as giving first aid and CPR, administering medication, preparing meals, and arranging transportation, as well as attending to the unique social, emotional, and psychological needs of those they care for. They are the essential pillars of the I/DD community, yet they are paid an hourly rate just above the state minimum wage. This is unacceptable and unsustainable.

Last year’s budget was a hopeful moment for the I/DD community: A 5.4 percent cost-of-living adjustment was the first significant investment for the I/DD service sector in over a decade, and a first step in resolving this crisis. With staff vacancy rates and turnover costs continuing to rise, it’s clear that last year’s investment alone is not enough.

Unfortunately, it does not seem like we are on track to continue addressing the crisis this year, either: The governor announced a 2.5 percent cost-of-living increase in her 2024 executive budget, which is simply not enough.

Permanent, long-term solutions are necessary to ensure a sustainable I/DD service sector in New York. That is why we must include a 8.5 percent cost-of-living increase and the creation of  Direct Support Wage Enhancement in our upcoming one-house bill.

Wage enhancement would allot nonprofit provider agencies additional funding to enhance hourly wages for direct-support staff. This would allow nonprofit providers to offer competitive wages while also ensuring that direct-service providers are not forced to choose between supporting those who depend on them or sustaining themselves and their families.

Without state funding to offer more competitive wages against other labor sectors, nonprofit provider agencies cannot effectively recruit and retain staff. High turnover rates are costing the state’s nonprofit service provider agencies more than $100.5 million annually — a cost that erodes funding for other essential programs and services.

We must also ensure that nonprofit providers can continue to cover the operational costs of vital programs and services. Significant cost increases related to mandated fringe benefits, repairs and maintenance, utilities, food, supplies, transportation, and insurance have placed significant financial pressure on agencies over the past year.

We’ve accomplished a lot, but the work is just beginning. Now we must do everything in our power to ensure every New Yorker has the chance to live happy, fulfilling, and productive lives.

State Sen. John Mannion of Geddes represents the 50th state Senate District.