Hochul petitioned to boost pay for workers who help people with developmental disabilities

Advocates ask Gov. Hochul to include $500 million to boost pay of direct support professionals who help developmentally challenged residents.

Nancy Cutler
Rockland/Westchester Journal News
  • The average starting hourly wage for DSPs at nonprofits in the Lower Hudson Valley is about $14.10
  • The living wage is $21.77 an hour in Rockland County.
  • OPWDD has reported 589 COVID-related deaths among group home residents, plus 43 staff members.

NEW CITY – Rihanna DeLaunay knows she could earn more at a different job. But she cared deeply for the people she supports working as a direct support professional at Jawonio, so she stayed, and kept working through her pregnancy at the height of the COVID pandemic. 

"We are like a family," DeLaunay said of the individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

But advocates for people with disabilities say that the state can't keep relying on DSP's compassion.

Those same advocates are petitioning Gov. Kathy Hochul to include $500 million in the state's upcoming budget to significantly hike DSP pay, plus use extra federal COVID-related Medicaid funding to add a cost-of-living increase for a group of workers who haven't seen a significant salary bump in years.

Rihanna DeLaunay, a direct care worker at Jawonio and Alirio Magana, are pictured at their headquarters in New City, Nov. 2, 2021.

Advocates and agencies are participating in a letter-writing campaign, RISE UP for DSPs, to share their stories with Hochul. 

"People don't see the direct-care crisis unless they have a loved one in need of services," said Assemblyman Tom Abinanti, chair of the Assembly Committee on People with Disabilities.

Equity implications

The numbers show the depth of the crisis:

  • The statewide job vacancy rate for DSPs now tops 25%. 
  • Agencies have reported up to 48% reductions in community programs because they lack staff to run them.
  • The state Office of People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) is closing down its own day programs in rural areas because they don't have the staff.

Most group home and day programs are operated by nonprofit agencies with funding from OPWDD. By its reimbursement formula, the state agency sets the wages for direct-care workers. 

The average starting hourly wage for DSPs at nonprofits in the Lower Hudson Valley is about $14.10.

How do you staff up in an area live Rockland where the living wage is $21.77 an hour, when the Big Box store offers $18 an hour or more, Jawonio CEO Randi Rios-Castro asked.

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"This has a devastating effect, not just on Jawonio," Rios-Castro said of the agency that provides lifespan services in the Mid-Hudson Region for children, adults, and families with intellectual/developmental disabilities, behavioral health challenges, and chronic medical needs.

Randi Rios-Castro, the CEO of Jawonio, is pictured in one of the classrooms at their headquarters in New City, Nov. 2, 2021.

The issue has equity implications all around, advocates say. People with disabilities, who need DSPs to live as independently as possible, lack political sway. And the DSP workforce – mostly women of color, many of them immigrants – aren't considered a powerful constituency.

While the current labor shortage is getting plenty of attention, the DSP workforce struggled with a shortage before the pandemic, which has exacerbated it, Abinanti said.

 "This is below the surface because the people (DSP workers) serve are out of sight," he said.

Advocates are hoping Hochul will step in where they say Gov. Andrew Cuomo didn't.

A lobbying campaign several years ago elicited a pledge of multi-year DSP wage increases by Cuomo, but it was a promise not kept. 

Cuomo 'so stingy'

"We don’t quite understand what it was with the former governor that the budgets have been starved," said Assemblyman Chris Burdick, chair of the Assembly Subcommittee on Employment Opportunities for People with Disabilities. "We can’t have it that someone goes off to work for Walmart because there’s more money there."

State Sen. James Skoufis said that the nine years he's been in the legislature, he had seen resistance from Cuomo on the pay issue.

"A one-off 1% increase for DSPs is offensive, it is obnoxious, and it’s not even close to what they deserve," the Democrat said about the past incremental steps Cuomo agreed to give over six years, but failed to fully implement.

OPWDD Commissioner Dr. Theodore Kastner recently resigned as part of the Hochul housecleaning of Cuomo staff. On Monday, Hochul announced Kerri Neifeld's nomination to take over the department was announced Monday. An OPWDD official said her start date, though, has not been determined.

Julianne Rose, the team leader for day services at Jawonio helps Brian Dolan fill out some paperwork in a classroom at their headquarters in New City, Nov. 2, 2021.

“OPWDD recognizes that our direct care workforce is the backbone of a strong service delivery system and we are taking an active role, along with our providers of services, on finding solutions to the workforce issues faced by our field," OPWDD spokesperson Jennifer O'Sullivan said.

A request to the governor's press office for comment on DSP wages was not immediately returned. 

"I am hopeful that she is more sympathetic and understanding of our vulnerable people," Abinanti said of Hochul. 

Abinanti said of Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, "He exacerbated a labor shortage in the human services field . . . by being so stingy in paying people."

COVID adds risk

On Tuesday, several people who attended a Jawonio day habilitation program were signing their names to the Rise Up for DSPs letter. 

Alirio Magaña was one of them. He lives Salmon Family Home in New City, a group home run by Jawonio, and goes to day habilitation at the nonprofit agency's New City headquarters. 

Magaña said DSPs like DeLaunay helped him "a lot during COVID" and continue to support him daily. "I think they deserve a raise because they work extremely hard every day," he said.

Rihanna DeLaunay, a direct care worker at Jawonio and Alirio Magana, fill out some paperwork in a classroom at their headquarters in New City, Nov. 2, 2021.

Magañawas unable to attend programs outside his group home during the darkest days of the pandemic.

DSPs like DeLaunay were truly a lifeline. While DeLaunay works in day hab programs, she helped staff group homes during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, COVID spread through these congregate settings even as the state imposed lockdown measures to curb the virus. Advocates have expressed concern that the situation was made worse by an April 2020 advisory from OPWDD that mandated group homes take back residents who were hospitalized for COVID treatment as long as they were symptomatic. 

As of Oct. 27, OPWDD has reported 589 COVID-related deaths among group home residents and 43 staff members have died of COVID-related causes.

"If there’s anything this pandemic has showed us over the past year and a half, it is how important jobs for people caring for other people are,"  Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski said during the Oct. 19 DSP rally.

Nancy Cutler writes about People & Policy. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter at @nancyrockland