Families and advocates urge NY pols to pass budget with funding for better wages for direct support professionals

Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright solemnly discusses the surge in anti-Semitism across the country (photo by William Engel)
Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright (photo by William Engel)

As New York lawmakers continue their state budget negotiations, what remains on the table is more funding for direct support professionals — caregivers for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  

Elected officials, including Manhattan Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright, are advocating for a 3.2% cost of living adjustment (COLA) for direct support professionals without any contingencies in the final state budget, which has been extended several times beyond its original April 1 deadline.  

“That’s what we’re advocating for, which would ensure provider agencies have the resources necessary,” said Seawright, who is the chair of the assembly’s People with Disabilities Committee. “We don’t want any restrictive language with this 3.2% cost of living adjustment. I think it’s so important to take care of our direct support professionals with a wage increase.”

Direct support professionals, sometimes referred to as personal care workers, are responsible for helping people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities with their every-day needs and care. They often work at group homes and similar assisted living residences. 

Other workers who would be covered under such an adjustment are secretaries and transportation workers, the assembly member said.

Despite the importance of the care-service sector, its workforce has been facing  many challenges, including an annual 30% worker turnover rate and non-profit provider agency vacancies in excess of 17%, Seawright wrote in a recent opinion piece that ran in amNewYork Metro

Meanwhile, the back-and-forth budgeting talks continue, with Gov. Kathy Hochul proposing only a 1.5% for cost-of-living adjustment. 

According to the NYS Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, the starting salary for a direct support assistant is $49,457 annually. 

‘Amazing’ caregivers

Tina Moreno knows first hand how important personal care workers are to families. She is the guardian of her 42-year-old niece, Tiffany, who until recently lived in a residential program setting that suffered from understaffing. 

“There was a lack of support for various reasons,” Moreno said. “The fact that there is a staffing crisis all over New York, you don’t have the support that is necessary for individuals who need it most.”

But there is a silver lining for Moreno. She has been an employee at Life’s WORC, a nonprofit that runs 45 group homes in the metro area, for 15 years. She was recently able to place Tiffany into a residence in Massapequa, Long Island, run by her employer; Tiffany now receives more one-on-one care and lives in a close-knit intimate environment better suited to her needs. 

“The staff are amazing here,” Moreno said.

Tiffany is on the autism spectrum and suffers from other mental health challenges that require her to have individualized care. She recently went through a traumatic medical event, too, that required her to stay in the hospital for two months. She is back at her home now, but needs 24/7 care as she recovers and works through the trauma of being in the hospital for so long.  

Moreno is very pleased with the care Tiffany is getting at her new home, and it is a big part of the reason why she supports wage increases for caretakers of vulnerable people throughout the state.

“It’s so important to have people like this who are loving and kind and patient and considerate. They show up every day even though she is experiencing challenging behaviors — behaviors the staff might not necessarily be used to in that home.”   

Jenny Antony, the chief financial officer at Life’s WORC, explained how important direct support professionals are and how a wage increase should be granted, as it would only be pennies on a dollar with benefits for both workers and the people they care for. 

“Our direct-care staff members play a critical part in supporting people with disabilities,” Antony said. “On average, the direct-care staff who are in these homes day-to-day, their hourly wages are 17 to 19 dollars an hour. A 3.2% cost-of-living adjustment on a $17 wage is only 54 cents.”

In the midst of a staffing crisis, Life’s WORC currently has 150 vacant positions, mostly due to the wages not always being enough to cover the local cost of living for those who apply. 

“That’s why the cost-of-living adjustment is really critical,”Antony said. “Even just to keep up with inflation and give them a slight adjustment in their salaries.”

As for the state’s budget, New Yorkers will have to still wait it out for a bit. But Seawright hopes this weekend will result in a deal, at long last. 

“Hopefully we can get this done. Everybody’s working really hard,” she said.