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Families of developmentally disabled seek more funding for their caregivers
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Karen DeWitt

Just one month before the state budget is due, numerous interest groups are converging on the Capitol, asking that they be included in the budget.

Among the more impassioned efforts is from developmentally disabled people and their caregivers. They are seeking $45 million dollars in state subsidies to pay workers more money to comply with the rising minimum wage in New York.  

Governor Cuomo and the legislature last year phased in an increase that will eventually lead to a $15 an hour wage in New York City and $12.50 an hour upstate.

Former Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg, who has a son with severe development disabilities, says the money is  “loose change” in a $160 billion dollar state budget. He says worker shortages with vacancy rates as high as 20% at some facilities has led to employees working overtime, while not earning enough to live decently themselves.

“They can’t pay their bills, they qualify for food stamps, there’s something wrong,” Weisenberg said. “The state has an obligation and a responsibility to pay these people a living wage.”

He says the overstressed and underpaid workers could lead to inadequate care for the patients and a return to the bad old days of neglect of the disabled. Weisenberg has said his own son, Ricky, was abused by a worker at a care center on Long Island, and he filed a lawsuit.

“We’ll have more neglect and abuse,” Weisenberg predicted. “More deaths. And we can’t let this happen”.

Under the state’s laws, wages for fast food workers are actually rising at a more rapid pace than for the rest of the workforce. Currently, the minimum pay for fast food workers is $12 an hour in New York City and $10.75 for the rest of the state. For all other workers, it’s lower, between $10.50 and $11 dollars an hour in New York City and $10.00 an hour in the rest of the state. Glenn Liebman is with the Mental Health Association, says the disparity has resulted in some adverse consequences. He says agencies that provide services to the mentally ill are also suffering staffing shortages, as workers go to McDonalds to seek better pay with fewer responsibilities.

“If you’re McDonalds, you can raise McNuggets by a quarter, to help pay for the cost of a minimum wage increase,” Liebman said. “We  can’t charge people more money.”

Groups representing the mentally ill also want $28 million more dollars for residential housing for people with chronic mental illness. They also complain of chronic worker shortages in the group homes. Governor Cuomo has proposed $10 million dollars, but Harvey Rosenthal, the executive director of the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services, says a total of $38 million dollars is needed.

“It’s a rounding error for this budget, but it will save our housing,” Rosenthal said.

They hope the money will be included in the Assembly and Senate budget plans, which are due out later in March, and the groups’ requests will be part of the larger budget negations.

They have support among Democrats and Republicans in the legislature, including GOP Senator Jim Tedisco, who had a brother who was developmentally disabled and who he says sometimes became upset and disoriented because of the rapid turnover of his caregivers.

“I, my colleagues up here, will not leave this budget session that does not have that funding in there,” said Tedisco, who pledged to use “every ounce of strength to get it done”.

Governor Cuomo, speaking at a cabinet meeting did not directly address the issue, but said he sees few sticking points between himself and the legislature in the upcoming budget negotiations.

But the governor says Republicans in the State Senate are still opposing his plan to extend an income tax surcharge on millionaires when it expires later this year. The tax brings in three and half billion dollars a year.

“I don’t know how you complete a budget without a millionaire’s tax,” Cuomo said.

The governor says the money is needed to pay for middle-class tax cuts, agreed to last year and which are scheduled to begin phasing in later this year, as well as a plan to provide free tuition at public colleges for New Yorkers earning less than $125,000 a year, and spend more on public schools.

Meanwhile, the Senate GOP, along with its ruling coalition partners, the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference, issued their annual report on state revenues. They say there is actually half a billion more dollars coming for next year than the governor originally estimated.