I welcome the opportunity to comment today on the 2023-2027 Draft Strategic Plan (further referred to as the 5.07 Plan). The focus of my input will be on Goal 2 (“Promoting practices that strengthen the workforce and infrastructure”) as it relates to the voluntary (non-profit) side of direct care under the OPWDD. I appreciate the effort and consideration that went into this plan, and offer my input as a union leader who is committed to partnering with the OPWDD, the legislature, and the state as we work together to fix a broken industry. Unfortunately, I am not alone in believing that the voluntary side of human services in New York State continues to be in crisis.
I have the privilege of representing roughly 4,000 unionized direct care professionals from all across New York. The comments I submit to you today are a reflection of their direct input, expertise, and struggles. More often than not a career working in direct care comes at the expense of families and personal life. I won’t explain at length the difficulties faced in direct care here today, but I would be seriously remiss if I failed to mention the long, mandated hours, the inadequate pay, and the chronic understaffing that leaves dedicated workers reluctant to take time off for themselves, their health, or their families. The 5.07 Plan is a step in the right direction, and with some small changes could make meaningful headway for direct care workers.
The multiple one-time bonus payments made to voluntary direct care workers through ARPA funds were a welcome acknowledgement of the work that direct care professionals do everyday, and the great personal risks they’ve assumed during the Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, the long-delayed rollout of funds, the lack of transparency and communication to workers regarding why funds were delayed, and the botched rollout by several employers once funds were finalized has left direct care workers with a bitter taste in their mouths and a sense that they are an afterthought to their employers and to the state of New York. Though Appendix K was approved by CMS in November 2021, the entirety of bonus payments to workers will not have been completed until the end of December 2022 (excluding the vaccine incentive funds, which appear to still be on hold indefinitely). It is widely understood by direct care workers on the voluntary side that, while their ARPA payments were made as one-time bonuses, workers on the state run side of direct care were given their ARPA bonuses as increases to their yearly salaries.
This is particularly frustrating to voluntary DSPs because it is clear that the state recognizes what is needed to recruit and retain quality workers on the state-run side of direct care. State direct care workers benefit from an established minimum wage of $19/hour and robust benefits including quality health insurance and retirement pension plans. Voluntary DSPs are not afforded the same attention and care - despite New York State’s clear obligation to adequately fund voluntary direct care non-profits there has been a consistent failure to do so. We can all agree that pay is a real issue for voluntary DSPs, but in addition to living wages DSPs also find that usable healthcare and any sort of retirement security are firmly out of reach. When voluntary DSPs do have access to healthcare, it is often in the form of high deductible plans. Retirement is non-existent or comes in the form of inadequate 401k plans. This gross disparity in treatment has unnecessarily agitated a frontline workforce that is already on the verge of collapse. Moving forward there must be a real, working effort to redirect long-term funds for voluntary direct care worker wages and benefits.
In Objective 2.2 of the 5.07 Plan, it states “Through the strategic planning process, OPWDD stakeholder groups noted ‘improving OPWDD’s use of data and its transparency with stakeholders,’ and ‘creating greater transparency and communication’ as top priorities.” And yet, unfortunately, in section 2.3 where stakeholders are explicitly listed, there is not one labor union representing the workforce that is of such concern to the success of the 5.07 plan. The plan explains that OPWDD has and continues to engage in regularly scheduled stakeholder meetings, which includes groups for self-advocates and families, provider (employer) agencies and associations, and Care Coordination Organizations (CCOs). It defies logic that, in the context of remedying a snowballing workforce crisis well over a decade in the making, no labor unions or workforce stakeholders would be included in conversations, communications, and plans. Employers, who struggle immensely with recruiting and retaining workforce, and maintain fairly consistent levels of workforce dissatisfaction, have demonstrated a proven inability to address workforce concerns or shift the tide of workers leaving the industry. Additionally, while the 5.07 plan invests heavily in education, training, and credentialing initiatives, there is no input from the workforce they wish to entice and maintain. Over the years I have consistently been told by direct care workers that the state’s DSP credentialing and training efforts are unrealistic and unhelpful in the context of actual direct care work. From being inaccessible to not coming with long-term pay incentives, to not reflecting the actual work DSPs need to be trained on to be successful on a daily basis – it is clear that union and workforce input would be invaluable in making sure that money the state invests in these efforts is not wasted.
Establishing regular communication between OPWDD and unions would greatly improve workforce morale, expertise, and safety. The state-run side of direct care in New York benefits greatly from direct communication between OPWDD and the labor unions representing its workforce. This level of communication is currently non-existent on the voluntary side of the industry. Frequently, important information on state funding for wages, Covid-related safety measures, training and credential opportunities, state initiatives and more does not make it to the on-the-ground workforce. We have seen across New York that employers in this industry have a tendency to interpret and gate-keep information as they see fit, to the frustration of the workforce and at the expense of individuals receiving services. Employer groups will publicly lobby for funding to make specific percentage wage increases, then actively misinform and fight against distributing the entirety of that funding to the workforce. At the height of self-isolation and the covid-19 pandemic we heard from workers across New York who were put at risk by their employer’s lack of speedy communication of state guidelines. Nobody should be exposed to covid-19 or be denied a well-earned raise because of a lack of access to the same information their employer receives from NYS.
In addition to including labor unions in regular meetings and communication, establishing a Workers’ Council would be a significant step towards better workforce relations and morale. The voluntary side workforce, representing roughly 80% of the entire direct care industry in New York State, deserves to work together with OPWDD as partners. Veteran direct care workers all across NY are relied on by their employers everyday for their knowledge, experience, expertise, and commitment. It is often long-term direct care workers training the new staff that funnels in and out of the workforce at alarming rates. They provide crucial services to individuals who thrive on consistency, and care deeply about the work they do. Every worker in direct care has a vested interest in seeing the end of the ongoing staffing crisis. As partners, direct care workers could help to shape an industry that could become resilient enough to survive the current workforce crisis. In a future where direct care jobs are seen as rewarding and long-term career paths, the focus can shift from simply not closing more programs to actually improving the quality of services and care available.
I thank you for taking the time to continue to review the 5.07 Plan, and look forward to working together to build a sustainable direct care industry in New York.
President, SEIU Local 200United