Advocates for people with disabilities say a wage increase for caregivers is now in jeopardy after Gov. Brian Kemp said the proposal lacked adequate funding in the latest state spending plan.
The proposed $6-an-hour wage raise for workers who care for people with disabilities has been making its way through the state process. The raise would’ve amounted to a 57% increase and plans were for the federal government and the state to jointly pay the cost of the raises.
But as Kemp signed the state’s annual budget May 5, he told the state’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) that the plan must have the proper financial support before it can move ahead, a decision that shocked supporters who thought the proposal was a lock.
“This unfunded mandate would have devastating impacts on the Department’s ability to maintain existing levels of service to the adult developmentally disabled community,” he wrote.
Providers and advocates told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that they are now scrambling to figure out what Kemp’s action means for the proposed wage hikes, and are afraid the consequences will be dire for people who need the caregivers.
In February, state officials had put in motion a plan to boost wages for caretakers for people with disabilities from about $10.63 an hour to $16.70 an hour. The move was intended to stop the loss of the caretakers to better paying jobs.
Some of the caregivers, also known as direct support professionals, told the AJC that they are working other part-time or full-time jobs to pay their bills. The agencies that employ them say the worker shortage is leading to worse outcomes for people with disabilities. Some organizations that serve Georgians with intellectual and developmental disabilities are now closing down, and the places that have stayed open are operating with a skeleton staff.
The proposal to hike wages still had layers of state and federal approval to go through and was expected to soon be submitted to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Supporters of the plan say lawmakers included language in the state budget providing assurances to the federal government that the state would pick up part of the wage hike, should it go through.
State officials do have some extra funding streams, fueled by emergency pandemic aid, to prop up these wages for a while, providers and advocates said. But eventually those resources will dry up.
“I’m afraid that people will not get into services, and that providers will close their doors, or that even when services are [given], the quality is downright dangerous,” said D’Arcy Robb, executive director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, an independent state agency that advocates on behalf of disabled people. “Our system is under strain. We need more investment.”
But Kemp, in his statement accompanying the budget, said that the Legislature did not appropriate any additional funds to support implementing these wage hikes. The study estimated a $105 million cost to implement the rate increase, he wrote, meaning DBHDD would have to redirect 25 percent of existing program funding from other services. But DBHDD officials said it would likely take a year before the wages were agreed to, given how long the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services approval process takes.
Supporters say they are still scratching their heads as to what this means for boosting these wages, and Robb, with the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, said she is trying to figure out whether the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services could still move forward on the plan.
DBHDD didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether the plan could still go before the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. DBHDD Commissioner Kevin Tanner previously told the AJC that the lack of workers is the “No. 1 issue” his department is confronting right now, and he has spoken with providers who said they would expand services in Georgia if a wage hike goes through.
Whitney Fuchs, CEO of InCommunity, a disability services and support organization, said he expects more homes to close down, and his own organization will need to consolidate operations because of the low wages. He said in an emailed statement that he knows many providers are in a similar situation.
“We cannot afford the overtime wages it takes to operate all of the homes and programs where we support people, and we will need to consolidate some operations in order to have adequate staff,” Fuchs said. “We are currently reserving any openings we have to offset some of those people who will be displaced. Unfortunately, we will not be able to accommodate everyone.”
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution