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Another Voice: State must help workers in challenging fields

By Jeff Paterson

Public policy should be strategic, and it should be adopted in full view of intended and unintended consequences.

Albany and Washington sometimes fall short of that ideal. The most recent example is the state’s effort to arbitrarily raise wages for one group of workers while not addressing the needs of other low-wage workers. The drive toward a $15 minimum wage for food service workers would leave other hardworking New Yorkers behind.

I have no objection to food service workers being paid a living wage. But what about those who work in other highly challenging fields?

At Niagara Cerebral Palsy, we employ more than 150 direct support professionals who provide essential services to intellectually and developmentally disabled individuals in group homes. Direct support professionals in this field generally earn a starting hourly wage of $10.50 to $11. These wages are based on the rates paid to providers by New York State; those rates have been subject to cuts at worst and stagnation at best in recent years. Unlike a restaurant, we cannot raise prices when we give employees a raise. We have to take what the state is willing to give us.

The state recently provided some funding to give our direct support professionals a long-overdue raise, but they’re still undervalued. These employees care for the most vulnerable individuals in our community. They lift. They feed. They bathe. They encourage. They must pass background checks and drug tests. They face lifelong consequences for any lapses in care. They can literally make the difference between life and death.

We also employ more than 40 teachers, teacher aides and clinicians in our preschool. The state hasn’t raised its special education preschool reimbursement rates in years, so employee pay has been held down. Our education staff members make a world of difference for children with special needs. The patience and devotion that they show to their students is second to none. Why aren’t we talking about the pay that these folks receive?

It is well and good for the state to take an interest in ensuring living wages on someone else’s dime. State officials also need to provide adequate reimbursement to human service providers, so that our hardworking employees can be paid a proper wage for the essential work they do. Otherwise, we are going to find it even more difficult than it is already to recruit qualified, responsible workers to care for those among us who are truly in need of specialized services.

I urge state officials to consider the full consequences of mandating pay increases for one isolated sector without looking at the whole picture. It is not only unjust, but it may have a detrimental effect on services for the disabled.

Jeff Paterson is executive director of Niagara Cerebral Palsy, one of the region’s 50 largest nonprofit organizations.