Much has been said and written about the state of nonprofits in Connecticut and the impact on services being provided to many of our must vulnerable citizens.
Nonprofits providing human service exist to partner with government – the one of the people and by the people and for the people– to look out for those most in need, helping government and our society to fulfill one of its most basic obligations. I know we can parse around the edges about what being “in need” means. Some have more restrictive definitions than others, but in the end it’s our collective sense of common humanity that brings most of us together in solidarity and collaboration to be there for folks who, often through no fault of their own, turn to nonprofits for help.
It’s already apparent that our elected leaders will struggle to construct another budget this year. As we always do, nonprofits will once again wait, not without putting up a fight, but likely with similar results, for whatever eventually comes our way. Will our measure of success once again be “well at least we didn’t get cut” or “at least they restored the cut originally recommended by the governor” or “it could have been worse?”
Central in all of this is the level of pay we offer our direct care staff. In 2007 the minimum wage in Connecticut was $7.65. My agency was starting direct care staff at $11.50, or about 50 percent more than the minimum wage. Today the minimum wage is $10.10 and we start our direct care staff at $12, a differential now of only 24 percent. The mandated minimum wage has increased 32 percent in 10 years while our minimum wage has increased 5 percent.
This is how we stay in business; it’s our dirty little secret. We stay in business in part because we get away paying our most valued employees, those working day-in and day-out directly with our men and women with intellectual and developmental disabilities, an unlivable wage.
It’s true. And it’s wrong.
Add to that high deductible, high premium insurance benefits, withholding, income taxes and our $12 hourly rate yields considerably less in take home pay, maybe less than $20,000 annually for a 40-hour position.
What is wrong with this picture? Everything.
We don’t have Tier I or Tier II or any other tier. Our employees don’t receive third shift differentials, double-time for overtime or holidays, pensions, etc. It would take one of our direct care employees 10 years to equal the annual salary of some state employee peers who make unconscionable amounts of overtime.
In 2016, two direct care state employees combined to make $310,000, not counting another $75,000 in fringe benefits. Their 2016 salaries alone would enable me to provide my 80-plus employees a 5 percent raise for the next three years!
For the first half of my 25 years as an executive director we could rely on cost-of- living adjustments in most years. If the state gave us a 3 percent increase, we’d increase our employees’ salaries by 3 percent. But we haven’t had a COLA since 2004. Two-thousand and four!
Let there be no question. While my agency is blessed with many dedicated, compassionate and selfless direct care staff, time is running out to begin turning this ship around. I believe that if we do not address this question soon, small community-based nonprofit human service providers will go out of business and their clientele will be absorbed back into large bureaucracies (mega nonprofits, for profits companies or, heaven help us, maybe even repopulating the shrinking but still very expensive public system). This will prove to be more costly, both quantitatively and qualitatively.
I have grown weary of lip service from folks who tell us how wonderful we are, how valued our work is, and how needed we are, but continue to perpetuate the long-standing “take it or leave it” practices of this state. We have become so numb to this cycle of impoverishing nonprofits, and those employees that work for us, that we consider it a victory when funding that was targeted to be cut is “restored” back to the levels of the previous year, which is pretty much the same funding as the year before that and the year before that and so on.
We don’t need to pay our employees $155,000 a year to provide quality services. But our employees deserve a fair wage and it’s time to right-size the human service delivery system in a way that provides what’s needed so that we can do that. Pay of $15 per hour is $31,200 per year. It doesn’t have to be all done at once. After all, even I recognize 13 years of neglect can’t be made up at one time. Just start somewhere now. This is not too much to ask. Or is it?
Denis Geary is Executive Director of the Jewish Association for Community Living.