By William T. Gettman Jr.
New York State and New York City recently announced a significant economic development award package for Amazon.com Inc. to construct a large corporate headquarters in Queens. The agreement provides tax and job creation incentives from the state and local governments.
During a similar time frame, we were recently made aware of the agreement that the state reached with the merger of Centene and Fidelis Health Care that provides $1.5 billion to support an increase in the hourly pay rates for health care workers. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo also recently urged the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to increase the minimum wage for airport workers to $19 an hour.
While certainly the hospital and airline workforce is in need of funding and support, the human services sector is also in great need. New York has more than 200,000 nonprofit human services workers, contracted by the state and local governments to take care of our children, our physically and mentally challenged, our domestic violence survivors, our elderly and other vulnerable citizens.
These front line workers provide the needed care that allows New York to be a great place to live and raise a family.
As the economy has improved, it has become more difficult to recruit and retain staff given the current starting and average salary levels our agency is able to pay. The improved general employment rates, while welcomed by all, reflect increased competition for fewer skilled, capable staff. The changes in minimum wages for selected fields of employment will greatly exacerbate these challenges. The average turnover rate statewide last year was 33 percent, which is very concerning as we know that turnover of staff has a major negative impact on outcomes for children and families.
The fact that state contracts and rates do not fully fund adequate worker salaries is, unfortunately, not new. What’s even more frustrating is that dating back to 2011, the state budget has eliminated statutory cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) for our sector, resulting in nearly $500 million in lost wages for our workforce — money that would have made a real difference in the lives of these employees, a constituency that is approximately 80 percent female and 50 percent individuals of color, whose average salaries range from $23,000 to $30,000 per year.
With the governor’s recent support for a $15 minimum wage, pay increases for airline and hospital workers, and equal pay for women, we hope that change is on the horizon. Funding the human services COLA in our next state budget would be a worthy investment not only in our sector, but for all New Yorkers.
William T. Gettman Jr. is chief executive officer of Northern Rivers Family of Services in Albany.