Schenectady ARC and supporters rally for increased funding to address staffing shortage

Liberty ARC client Imani Haynes listen to Theresa Wellington, a Liberty assistant manager, speak Thursday at an event to raise support for increased state funding for organizations that provide care for the disabled.

Liberty ARC client Imani Haynes listen to Theresa Wellington, a Liberty assistant manager, speak Thursday at an event to raise support for increased state funding for organizations that provide care for the disabled.

SCHENECTADY — People with disabilities and their advocates gathered Thursday to press for more state funding for the caregivers who work with the disabled.

The money is part of the Medicare funding stream, and has not seen a net increase in a decade, said Kirk Lewis, executive director of the Schenectady ARC. 

As a result, the ARC can’t increase its wage structure and has difficulty recruiting and retaining employees. The starting wage for many jobs is $12.80 an hour, not counting shift differentials or other potential boosts, Lewis said.

The private nonprofit relies on state and federal funding for 95% of its budget and can’t raise prices to boost its payroll, he added.

Only about a third of its day programs have resumed in the wake of COVID, Lewis said, but the staffing shortage has hit the residential programs hard.

“In our houses we’re struggling to get enough staff to keep people safe, and obviously that’s the first priority,” he said.

Extras such as taking residents on trips out into the community, an important boost for their social well-being, have taken a back seat to basic function at times.

“We’ve got everyone in the agency working,” Lewis said. “Our senior managers are doing shifts, filling in. It’s across the board.”

ARC can’t compete with other employers offering entry-level employees $15 or more per hour, Lewis said.

He estimated the ARC has a 30% vacancy rate, and said he’d hire 100 people tomorrow if he could.

As a result, direct service providers are working overtime, sometimes 60 or more hours a week, said Calvin Tucker, program manager at a Schenectady ARC residence. Tia Keane, a resident of the facility, stood with him.

“We are so low-staffed that it’s hard to meet her needs, to meet any of the individual needs that we have to support in our homes,” Tucker said. “There’s no way for us to continue to push forward this way. … We see the struggle in their eyes when they want to do something and we aren’t able to support them.”

He spoke also of the state minimum wage structure that mandates more money for people flipping burgers than for those shaping the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities — $15 per hour vs. $12.50 in upstate New York.

“I feel like we have been forgotten,” Tucker said.

Theresa Wellington, a Liberty ARC employee, stood before the group with Imani Haynes, a 2020 graduate of Canajoharie High School.

Wellington finds her work with Haynes and other clients immensely rewarding, even after a 15-hour day, but she said there need to be more service providers.

“We need the higher funding so we can get more people in so we can support these guys. They need to go to their med appointments. They need to go to the bathroom! They need to do normal things like we do, and we can’t do that unless we have the staff,” Wellington said.

Assemblymen Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, and Phil Steck, D-Colonie, who represent Schenectady, spoke in support of increased state funding, as did state Sen. James Tedisco, R-Glenville. They’ve also spoken out in the past. But nothing has come of their advocacy so far, even in the state’s record-high 2021-2022 budget.

“I don’t know what the holdup is to provide this funding,” Santabarbara said, adding that he has sent multiple messages of need to the governor’s office and has yet to hear back.

Santabarbara said he’s reminded of how much work direct service providers perform when his 19-year-old son, Michael, is home on the weekends and his parents do the work caregivers do during the week.

A parade of new and replacement caregivers who haven’t learned a client’s non-verbal cues and may not even know their name is not an ideal situation for those struggling with the challenges of autism or other disabilities, Santabarbara said.

A better wage would allow those with a passion for this work to stay with it, instead of moving on.

“It’s just an investment in people,” he said.

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