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By Gary Blumenthal
“Equal Pay for Equal Work” is one of the great social justice and worker victories of the last century, and has been enshrined in Pennsylvania state law for 62 years and in federal law for 58 years.
Sadly, it is not practiced by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania when it comes to front line workers such as the 55,000 direct support professionals (DSPs) in Pennsylvania who assist people with intellectual disabilities and autism to live and work in the community.
It has been painful to witness Pennsylvania leaders openly discriminate against DSPs by providing substantially higher wages for state own employees, while forcing community-placed DSPs to live on poverty wages. These DSPs, overwhelmingly employed by nonprofit organizations such as InVision Human Services, local Arc chapters, and other providers in the commonwealth, are funded by federal law exclusively with funds from the state’s Medicaid program.
This is the identical source that funds state-owned and operated programs. However, when it comes to setting wage parameters in distributing Medicaid funding for these programs, the commonwealth pays its own employees 30% more than local community programs. This is disparate and discriminatory treatment of community programs.
Over 70% of community-based workers are women, with a high representation of people of color, and of moms with children to support. This wage discrepancy forces them to work two or more jobs to provide for their family’s basic needs. Meanwhile, state workers have greater income and more security, including generous state health and retirement benefits.
The impact of this wage discrimination has directly harmed the lives of the very vulnerable people the Commonwealth has pledged to protect as well. Community disability programs, forced to pay poverty wages under the state’s funding formula, are unable to hire enough workers to staff their programs.
At the height of the pandemic, 80% of all DSPs quit their jobs because they could not survive on the wage provided; that number is still almost 40%. Meanwhile, state-owned programs continue operating with a modest turnover rate of 17%.
With the loss of those DSPs, 6,500+ Pennsylvanians with intellectual disabilities and autism lost their services and supports because there was simply not enough staff to serve them. Many of these community programs remain closed because there are not enough people willing to even apply for these positions at poverty wages.
During this time, while these 6,500 people lost their services, the state went to extreme measures to ensure that no state centers terminated people from service or were sent back to their elderly parents.
Today, more than 13,000 people are waiting for service, including 5,000 in crisis conditions. Many of them have waited years.
Gov, Tom Wolf and the General Assembly have the ability to address this crisis and establish fairness between its employees and community-based DSPs.
The American Rescue Plan has sent increased and earmarked funding to Pennsylvania to rescue these programs. The Wolf Administration has announced its intention to refresh the data used to set community disability rates and wages.
And yet the people of Pennsylvania are still waiting, experiencing a worsening crisis, to see when Wolf and the General Assembly will use their authority and earmarked funds from the federal government to fix the crisis.
It is time for Pennsylvania’s leaders to do what they have required and urged all of the state’s employers to do. It is time for this state to provide funding so Pennsylvanians who provide supports to people with intellectual disabilities can receive equal pay for equal work. It’s only fair. It’s way past time to do this.
Gary Blumenthal is the vice president of government relations and advocacy for InVision Human Services, headquartered in Wexford, Pa., with additional offices in Reading and Harrisburg. He served in the Clinton and Obama administration as disability officer, as well the Kansas House of Representatives. He has an adult brother with intellectual disabilities.
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