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Direct care providers urge state lawmakers to achieve living wage

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

Advocates for professionals providing direct care to people living with developmental disabilities are urging state lawmakers to speed up the allocation of funds already earmarked to help the providers earn living wages.

Some of the providers, as well as some of their clients, held a rally in the auditorium of the Buffalo Museum of Science Tuesday morning. Numerous elected state representatives were also present to hear their message: the $55 million allocation in the 2017 is appreciated but it needs to be distributed quickly.

And, it's just a first step toward ensuring these direct care professionals can make a living.

"What we're doing here today is rallying our folks, our individuals with disabilities, to say to the state legislature and say to the governor, 'we still need more funding to raise the salaries of our direct support professionals so that they have a living wage,'' said Kevin Horrigan of People Inc.

Ninety percent of the funds that the providers use to operate and pay salaries, Horrigan explained, come from Medicaid, which is then matched by federal funds.

State Senator Robert Ortt, who chairs the Senate's Developmental Disabilities Committee, said it was alarming to learn last year of the disparity in wages between those providing care for developmentally disabled persons and rising minimum wages of fast food workers. 

He encouraged advocates for the developmentally disabled to voice their concerns, and push for their funding, just as other interests will as the Cuomo Administration prepares to submit a 2018 budget.

"We're going to do everything we can do, to do two things. If we can get them more funding, but also try and speed up the schedule of last year's funding," Ortt explained. "It's spread out and their concern, as a lot of folks, is who knows what the situation will be four or five years from now? They want their workers to be getting paid now."

Providers of direct care services say without funding for living wages, such agencies face a staffing crisis. 

There will be a big challenge, though, in a projected multi-billion-dollar budget deficit. There is also the uncertainty of how federal tax reform may affect the state budget. Ortt, a Republican, said while individuals within his district may enjoy some benefits, federal tax reform may adversely affect the state budget.

"The more there's a fiscal challenge, the more reason there is to get out here and just make sure people understand 'we're important too.'" he said.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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