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Disabled Groups Want More Money In New York Budget

Advocates for the disabled rally at the capitol in Albany.
Karen DeWitt
Advocates for the disabled rally at the capitol in Albany.

State lawmakers with disabled children rallied Monday at the state capitol in Albany, along with developmentally disabled people and their caregivers, for more money in the budget to pay caregivers a living wage.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the legislature approved a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour downstate and $12.50 an hour upstate, saying mega companies like McDonald’s and Burger King can afford to pay their workers more.

But agencies that care for the mentally disabled say they aren’t for- profit entities with large profit margins. They rely on Medicaid reimbursements from the state to care for around 130,000 people with developmental disabilities in New York.  And they say without a higher rate of reimbursement from the government, they won’t be able to afford the increased wage when it phases in over the next couple of years.

They have some strong allies within the legislature. Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, of Schenectady, has a son with autism. He spoke at the rally at the State Capitol, crediting what he says is the “amazing” care his son gets from his caregivers.

“We need a fair wage for our direct care workers,” said Santabarbara. “These are the people that are changing lives.”

The groups want $45 million added to the state budget for each of the next six years to make up the difference it would cost to pay the higher wage. Former lawmakers also spoke out. Harvey Weisenberg, of Long Island, has a disabled son and was an activist for disabled rights during his time in the Assembly.

“Unfortunately, people in government just don’t understand,” Weisenberg said. “That these people are getting paid less money taking care of your loved ones than people flipping hamburgers.”  

Former Assembly Minority Leader and former Congressman Tom Reynolds, from the Buffalo area, also came back to the Capitol to advocate for his disabled son. He says 90 percent of the provider groups’ budgets come from the government, in the form of Medicaid reimbursement.

“80 percent% of that goes to wages,” Reynolds said.

Santabarbara and Weisenberg are Democrats, Reynolds is a Republican, but they say in this instance, political parties don’t matter.  And they say they want to make sure their requests are front and center as the decisions get made about priorities in the new state budget.

“This is planning time now,” said Reynolds.

The lawmakers and the disabled caregivers groups also want the state to address the high vacancy and turnover rate in the industry. Governor Cuomo vetoed a bill that would have helped with recruitment and retention.

But a spokeswoman for the Office of People with Developmental Disabilities says her agency is “deeply committed” to attracting and keeping skilled caregivers. As for the request for the $45 million over the next six years, spokeswoman Jennifer O’Sullivan says the governor provided subsidies in the current year’s budget to help agencies for the developmentally disabled comply with higher wage requirements. She says the administration is “aware of the concerns presented and those concerns will be reviewed during the budget negotiation process.” 

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