Published in Woonsocket Call on November 6, 2016
When the Rhode Island General Assembly wraps up its session many times the stars are not in political alignment for passage of a particular legislative proposal or budget amendment, even if many lawmakers considered these to be worthy of passage. Sen. Louis P. DiPalma understands this very well.
During the past four legislative sessions he has unsuccessfully pushed to increase pay for direct care workers serving persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities by boosting the state’s budget funding for these workers.
DiPalma, a Middletown resident who as a senator has represented Little Compton, Middletown and Tiverton for over 8 years, has come back for a fifth time, hopefully the last, to see his efforts succeed in providing a living wage to these providers, enhancing the quality of life of their lives.
A Call for a ’15 in 5’ Pay Increase
At a news conference held on Friday, Oct. 28, at Warwick-based West Bay Residential Services, DiPalma along with fellow Senators, announced their support for his proposal: ’15 in 5’ pay increase for workers serving persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Democratic senator envisions annual, incremental increases in compensation to reach $15 an hour in five years, and tying the pay rate to inflation thereafter.
A 2015 survey by the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island paints a picture of Rhode Island’s direct care workers. The majority of these individuals are women of households. Many receive state assistance from programs geared towards low-income workers, such as SNAP benefits, WIC, heating assistance, day care assistance, and housing aid. More than 40 percent of the workers hold more than one job to financially survive.
At the 53-minute press conference, DiPalma urged Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo to include his funding proposal in her 2017 budget submission. He also plans to submit legislation in the 2017 session to address the compensation system for these direct care workers, providing annual increases so that the pay rate of direct care workers reaches $15 in five years, and tying future wage increases beyond five years to inflation.
“The minimum wage has increased by 30 percent since 2012, but the rate paid to these essential direct care providers has remained stagnant,” charged DiPalma, at the press event. “The pay is now barely more than minimum wage, which is having a detrimental effect on staff retention, training costs, and, as a result, quality of care [for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities],” he says.
DiPalma noted that the need for this pay increase is obvious. “The facts and data show that our direct care workers love their jobs and want to stay in the field. They genuinely care about the population they serve. Yet, 62 percent of respondents to a recent survey indicated that low salary was a factor that may make them leave their jobs. We need to act to address this urgent situation,” he said.
According to DiPalma, the average annual staff turnover rate in the private provider network is approximately 33 percent. “This is three times as high as the approximately 11 percent staff turnover rate for comparable positions with the state-run providers through the Rhode Island Community Living and Supports (RICLAS) at the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, according to providers and RICLAS,” he says.
The average private-sector direct care worker makes $10.82 per hour, or about $22,500 a year, says DiPalma, noting that entry level provider positions at state RICLAS pay $17.15 per hour. When considering longevity, the average wage for all RICLAS direct care workers is approximately $42,278. RICLAS workers also receive state employee benefits.
Jumping on the Band Wagon
Two days before DiPalma’s press conference, Secretary of Health and Human Services Elizabeth Roberts penned her endorsement of his wage increase proposal. In her Oct. 26 correspondence, she strongly endorsed his efforts to implement multiyear wage increases to Rhode Island’s direct service providers. “These workers are critically important to realizing the goals set forth in our clients’ person-centered plans,” she adds, noting that these workers provide services necessary for ensuring that persons with disabilities are integrated in Rhode Island communities.
At the press conference, S came to give DiPalma his blessings. “Increasing wages to private direct care workers addresses an important part of the wage inequity problem, and helps improve outcomes for the individuals they serve. At the same time, we need to continue to review the methodology for compensating all those direct care workers who serve our children, homebound elderly, and individuals with disabilities through other types of provider agencies,” says Da Ponte.
Like other speakers at the press conference, Donna Martin, executive director of Community Provider Network of Rhode Island, called initial salaries for direct service workers “woefully inadequate” for the work they perform. “They are working nights and holidays leaving their families behind to support individuals under their care.,” says Martin. “These individuals serve as mentor, friend, confident and even some serve in the role of family to their clients,” she adds.
Adds speaker Anthony Antosh, Director of the Paul V. Sherlock Center on Disabilities: “The field of developmental disabilities has dramatically changed in the past two decades as have the responsibilities and expectations for direct support staff. The outcomes achieved by adults who have a developmental disability are directly connected to the quality and stability of direct support staff. Developing a career ladder built on quality training and fair wages will go a long way towards stabilizing the direct support workforce and improving quality of services.”
Marie Carroll, a direct service provider employed by ARC of Blackstone valley, a
Pawtucket-based agency employing over 200 employees, sat in the audience to support DiPalma in his efforts to increase funding for direct care workers. She sees Rhode Island’s lower wages pulling her colleagues into Massachusetts for higher incomes.
Carroll hopes to see the Rhode Island General Assembly in the upcoming session value the work she and 3,500 direct care workers provide. “People who care for the state’s disabled should not be paid poverty wages. You can’t expect people to work in an emotional and sometimes physically demanding job for $11 per hour,” she said, stressing that low wages keep these workers from taking adequate care of their own families.
Boosting Wage Payments in Next Year’s Budget
At press time, DiPalma’s wage increase proposal has received a seal of approval from President of the Senate M. Teresa Paiva Weed and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Da Ponte. Roberts, as Secretary of Health & Human Services, who oversees the state’s disability programs and services, gives her enthusiastic support for boosting funding of direct services workers in the upcoming 2018 budget. But, press secretary Larry Berman says that House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello is studying DiPalma’s proposal and has not yet taken a position on this issue.
Even with early political support of DiPalma’s ’15 in 5’ Pay Increase proposal, its ultimate passage lies with either Governor Raimondo boosting direct car worker wages in her FY 2018 budget proposal or in the state’s final budget crafted by the House with the sign off of the Senate. For DiPalma and those working with persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the Governor, House Speaker and President of the Senate must be on the same page to move DiPalma’s proposal forward. Hopefully, the “fifth time is the charm.”