More than 100 advocates for those with developmental disabilities filled a hall at the Onondaga County War Memorial Thursday calling for increased wages for direct care providers. The agencies that employ the workers are funded almost entirely by Medicaid, and haven’t seen a funding increase in eight years. Despite earning about 10 dollars an hour, most providers say the work is rewarding. Rayven Pearsall is a direct care provider with Arc of Onondaga.
"I should not have to worry about if my check will be enough to cover groceries and cover my bills when I work more than 40 hours a week. Please," she implored state lawmakers, "We cannot continue to provide support without being supported."
Other direct care providers believe the burden of poor funding falls on those who need care, especially with the high turnover rate. Rich Gardner is with Access CNY.
"Our low wages hurt the people we work with because of the high rate of turnover," Gardner said. "A lot of times, new staff learns how to work with somebody, and the person starts getting comfortable with us, and we leave. Then a new worker comes in, and it starts all over again."
Steve Port with the David Clark Learning Center say the intimacy required for care-giving takes time to establish and maintain.
"It's easily the participants who suffer the most," Port said. "Can you imagine what it must be like to open up to someone, to trust them with your life,your livelihood, your privacy, your money only to have them gone in three months and have some new person to try and get used to. That is not right."
Self-advocate Emily Sherman is involved in several programs through Access CNY.
"The services like job coaching helped me get a job at Wegmans, which has helped me be more confident in myself."
Syracuse-area state Senator John DeFrancisco says he’ll do all he can to push for higher wages for providers in the next legislative session. He contrasts the difference with fast food workers who will be eligible for a $15 per hour minimum wage.
"It is so ironic that you can get paid better by flipping hamburgers than taking care of people who have the greatest needs of all," DeFrancisco said.
State Assemblyman Al Stirpe knows the challenges of finding quality care first-hand. His step-daughter Jessica lives in an Arc of Onondaga home.
"There are many many issues that have gone unaddressed for dozens of years now," Stirpe said. "I'm hoping this is the year we'll finally convince the governor to take some of the money that he's funneled into economic development, which seems to be the only focus, and move that to professional care."
Other members of the Central New York delegation including Senator Dave Valesky, and Assemblymembers Bill Magnarelli and Pam Hunter say they’ll work together to see that more funding is included for direct care agencies in the next state budget. More information is at arcon.org and accesscny.org.