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State layoffs to hit hard on services for disabled

As layoff notices began reaching thousands of state workers Thursday, nonprofit agencies in the Buffalo area were already being asked to quickly pick up the caseloads of 600 developmentally disabled people now under the care of soon-to-be-laid-off public employees.

"It's a lot of people at one time," said Rhonda Frederick, chief operating officer of People Inc., a nonprofit human services agency notified Thursday by the state to get ready for the influx of Medicaid-funded cases.

State officials maintain the transfer can be done without hurting services to the disabled community.

The shifting of people from the state's responsibility to private caregivers comes as the Cuomo administration moves to lay off 3,500 state workers represented by the Public Employees Federation. The union's membership this week rejected a five-year wage and benefit contract deal with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

The administration has not yet been able to provide a list of positions, or geographic locations, of workers who will lose their jobs. About 10 percent to 15 percent of the state's work force is in the Buffalo area.

The layoffs will affect a range of agencies and workers, including nurses in the state university system, engineers at the transportation department and caregivers in mental health facilities.

The agencies facing the most layoffs -- including the office of mental health, corrections, transportation, tax and finance, and health department -- declined to provide information about layoff notices on Thursday.

The Office for People with Developmental Disabilities on Thursday began telling nonprofit agencies, including People Inc., that they are being called on to help with the transfer of care for as many as 10,000 disabled people across the state. The timeframe is quick: just six weeks or less.

The agency is laying off 386 PEF members, and a large number of them will be caseworkers who coordinate the range of services -- from medical care to day treatment -- for disabled people. Medicaid funds the services.

It is uncertain how -- given their already-bulging caseloads -- some private agencies will be able to absorb the management of so many disabled people.

In an email to its members Thursday, the New York State Rehabilitation Association said the looming PEF layoffs already are having "a significant impact" on services provided by the state agency that cares for developmentally disabled people.

"Failure to make the transition could leave some individuals without [Medicaid Service Coordinator] services," the group said.

But Travis Proulx, a spokesman for the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, said, "We are working closely with our great network of nonprofit providers to ensure the continuity of services for the individuals we serve."

For the state, transferring the cases to private providers will end up saving money. The nonprofits pay workers far less and offer fewer benefits than what PEF members at the agency receive.

Frederick, the People Inc. executive, said there is also talk of private agencies providing disabled people with other services now provided directly by the state, including physical therapy and educational programs. People Inc. has about 70 caseworker coordinators already on staff, and Frederick said they have full caseloads. The group will have to quickly hire new staff to handle the new cases, which should be doable, Frederick said.

"It's going to be a quick transition," Frederick said.

Other agencies also were scrambling.

The state rehabilitation association said most of the 643 layoffs at the Office of Mental Health will be clinicians who provide direct care to patients.

At the State Police, 21 PEF members are losing their jobs; a spokesman said the cuts will be limited to the agency's information services offices.

At Roswell Park Cancer Institute, which sources this week said was in the line of fire for layoffs, officials said no cuts will be coming because it is no longer a state agency but a public benefit corporation. "All personnel -- layoff or hiring -- decisions are made locally at Roswell Park," said Vicki Garcia, Roswell's vice president of human resources.

PEF officials, meanwhile, were trying again to drag Cuomo back to the negotiating table.

Because of the higher wages paid to the 56,000 white-collar state workers represented by PEF, the union maintains its proposed deal with Cuomo was less favorable than one reached this summer by the Civil Service Employees Association. They say members are concerned about the extent of the health insurance hikes and other givebacks in the deal they rejected.

PEF President Ken Brynien said the union is prepared to present "new ideas which we believe will lead to a tentative contract agreement that will meet everyone's needs and our members will ratify."

He did not elaborate, but the union has rejected Cuomo's idea of simply holding a revote; 54 percent of PEF's members voted the deal down.

"PEF has known their options for months. It was and is their choice, and we are moving forward," responded Joshua Vlasto, a Cuomo spokeswoman.

At the State University of New York, officials said no layoff notices have yet been sent to the 208 PEF positions on the chopping block. At the University at Buffalo, a spokesman said the school has received no notice as to whether any of its 51 PEF-represented workers will have to go.

Kevin Hintz, the Buffalo-area PEF coordinator, said specific agency layoff numbers for the region are still not compiled, but he said about 17 people at the West Seneca Developmental Center are slated to lose their jobs.

Hintz has said an "overwhelming" number of PEF members in the region voted against the Cuomo deal.

On Thursday, he said of those getting pink slips: "They're pretty devastated. They're trying to understand why. Obviously, the governor is making good with his threat to lay us off. We gave him a ton of ways to help him save money, but he's hell-bent on layoffs."

email: tprecious@buffnews.com

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