Special needs providers are still not fully supported
At HeartShare Human Services of New York, we celebrated with great joy Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent announcement that $55 million would be added to this year’s state budget for direct support professionals (DSPs), including those who work in programs funded by the NYS Office for People With Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD). Cuomo stated that DSPs will receive a 6.5 percent increase over the next two years, which will ensure that they are paid more than the minimum wage. This is the result of an intensive nine-month campaign called bFair2DirectCare that sought to ensure that workers in the developmental disabilities field were paid more than minimum wage for the important work they do and that those managerial positions were incentivized to stay in their often difficult, high stress and demanding jobs.
HeartShare is a nonprofit human services agency that supports people in need of special services and support with over 100 programs that serve some 36,000 New Yorkers annually. It is funded primarily by OPWDD and the New York State Education Department (SED), which means that government contract funds and cost of living adjustments determine how much we are paid for the services we provide and directly dictate what we are able to pay our DSPs, special education teachers and speech, occupational and physical therapists. This is why HeartShare participated early and vigorously in the bFair2DirectCare campaign. We are very grateful to our local and statewide officials who supported the bFair2DirectCare campaign and can never thank them enough for getting behind this issue.
But despite this significant victory, much more is needed.
First and foremost, the state budget must provide for teacher and therapist salary increases in private and publicly run 4410 special education preschool programs and 853 school age programs for students with disabilities across the state. Although there have been some modest increases in the past couple of years, providers such as HeartShare and others are constantly losing their teachers to the New York City public school system because our salaries are 30 to 50 percent less than what the New York City Department of Education pays. HeartShare employs 50 special education teachers in two boroughs but we have a sixteen percent teacher vacancy rate from teachers who left in August and September of last year mostly to work in public schools. This lack of investment in programming which has proven to be extremely effective, is shortchanging our children and their future independence.
There is currently a request from the New York State Education Department to serve several hundred new vulnerable young preschoolers with special needs, along with the children from the closed programs. How can agencies respond when we cannot hire staff for our current programs? Over the past few years we have seen program after program close; we all wonder which school program will be next.
Recently State Education Department officials recommended some desperately needed increases: a 4.85 percent preschool tuition increase and a 5.2 percent school-age program increase for the coming budget year. They also recommended $8 million for teacher retention. These increases require the approval of the Division of the Budget and the Governor’s Office. Getting these approvals is one of our highest priorities.
Second, the state budget needs to provide regular cost of living adjustments (COLAs) or “trends” to OPWDD-funded programs. Nonprofit agencies providing services to those with intellectual and developmental disabilities received such trends up until 2010. As rent, food, transportation and health care benefits costs increase as well as administrative costs like accounting and human resources, the cost of running residential, day habilitation, and community programs has also increased. However, OPWDD-funded programs received only one minimal trend of two-tenths of one percent in 2016-17.
Nonprofit agencies will not survive if proper funding levels are not maintained and New York State does not return to regular cost of living adjustments.
Finally, the state budget needs to provide better compensation for training our frontline supervisors. HeartShare is part of a Training Collaborative with three other nonprofit agencies that has developed a credentialed and highly effective program to train 300 frontline supervisors on the core competencies needed to do their jobs well. This program has been recognized nationally; however, training staff requires resources, and tight budgets cut into our ability to provide quality training.
At the end of the day, HeartShare employees are responsible for other people’s lives.
Our DSPs serve as advocates, teachers, and caregivers to the individuals they support, including those with autism spectrum disorder, challenging behaviors and dual diagnoses. They assist with self-care skills and daily living activities and support people in becoming engaged members of their communities. Our teachers and teacher assistants work closely with children with special needs to give them the early start they need in life so they won’t require as intensive services when they are older. These staff are our true heroes.
What price tag would you place on care for your loved ones?
Linda Tempel, MBA, MSW, is executive director of developmental disabilities services at HeartShare Human Services of New York which nurtures and empowers more than 36,000 vulnerable New Yorkers each year.