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Our Turn: Louis P. DiPalma and William J. Conley: A minimum wage for health workers

By Louis P. DiPalma and William J. Conley

Posted Mar 28, 2019 at 11:44 PM

Updated Mar 28, 2019 at 11:44 PM

The time has come to establish a minimum wage for state Medicaid-funded health and human services. It is not only necessary, it is an issue of dignity and a moral imperative. Many of these workers support the state’s most vulnerable populations, including those with intellectual and development disabilities (I/DD) and home-bound seniors. These direct care workers support Rhode Islanders, assisting them with their personal needs so they can live at home in their communities, and enabling them to lead full, productive lives.

Over the course of seven years, Rhode Island’s minimum wage has increased 42 percent, from $7.40 to $10.50. Over that same period, direct-support professionals serving individuals with disabilities saw their wages increase by just 15 percent. They had an average wage of $10.65 seven years ago, and today providers report an average wage of it is $11.42.

This is unacceptable. We must work to correct this inequity and establish a health and human services minimum wage of at least $15, and ensure the wages remain equitable. As the minimum wage increases, so too should the wages for direct support professionals.

Massachusetts and Connecticut have both taken steps to improve wages for these workers. We mustn’t allow Rhode Island to fall further behind. Over the course of the last three years, the governor and General Assembly have worked to increase the hourly wages of these workers, but there is more to do.

Gov. Gina Raimondo’s 2020 budget proposes an additional increase for workers serving individuals with I/DD, and this is most certainly a step in the right direction. However, even with these increases many workers are barely earning above the current minimum wage. This $11.42 wage does not speak to the value of these workers or to the commitment to the individuals they serve.

While we take pride in the fact that no services have been cut, or eligibility denied, we have built the programs and services on the proverbial backs of these workers. This is unconscionable, reprehensible and must be reversed post haste.

Suppressed wages have led to high staff turnover, which impacts the quality of care to our seniors and individuals with disabilities.

A recent survey demonstrated direct care workers love their jobs and want to stay in the field. They care about the population they serve. Yet 62 percent indicated that low salary was a factor that may makes them leave their jobs. The survey found that the majority of direct care workers are women, many of whom are heads of households, and more than 40 percent hold more than one job in order to make ends meet.

If we know the wage is inadequate to support basic needs, and the majority of workers impacted are women, is it not our responsibility to act? How can we preserve this workforce in a way that demonstrates that we value their work and the people they serve? A critical first step is to increase their wages.

Legislation has been introduced to establish a health and human services minimum wage. It is a moral imperative that we move forward.

Remember the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

Louis P. DiPalma, D-Middletown, and is first vice chairman and William J. Conley, D-East Providence, is chairman of the Rhode Island Senate Finance Committee.

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