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Gavin Newsom delayed California disability worker raises. Lawmakers fighting to keep them

Sacramento Bee - 6/6/2024

Reality Check is a Bee series holding officials and organizations accountable and shining a light on their decisions. Have a tip? Email realitycheck@sacbee.com.

California workers who serve those with disabilities are still waiting to see whether they will receive promised pay raises on July 1, as lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom battle over whether to include the increases in a tight budget.

The workers, known as direct care staff or direct service professionals, help people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They were to receive the last in a series of Department of Developmental Services pay rate increases next month, until Newsom in January proposed putting them off until 2025 to trim $612.5 million in general fund spending, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

But lawmakers last week rejected that cut, saying they want to move forward with the raises in their joint legislative budget agreement. That puts them at odds with Newsom as they work to close an estimated $45 billion spending gap.

In the meantime, disability workers and the nonprofits that employ them are dealing with an uncomfortable limbo while they wait for Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, D-Hollister, and Senate President Pro Tem Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, to negotiate the final state spending plan with Newsom.

Lawmakers must pass a placeholder budget by June 15 to receive their paychecks, but negotiations could drag on until later in the month. The new fiscal year begins July 1.

“The talk now is that we just have to keep pushing,” said Assemblywoman Stephanie Nguyen, D-Elk Grove, who has been working for months to preserve the rate increases. “We’ve got days here, and every hour, every minute counts.”

Disability workers underpaid

The workers who serve Californians with disabilities do everything from providing personal assistance to running day programs and helping clients maintain jobs and live independent lives.

They have long been underpaid, and the Legislature began taking steps to increase wages in recent years. The 2021-22 budget used a study looking at the cost of providing services to institute a new rate structure for workers, to be phased in over five years, according to the LAO. The 2022-23 budget advanced the timeline, with full rate implementation by 2024.

H.D. Palmer, a Department of Finance spokesman, noted in an email the governor’s proposal “would, in effect, return full implementation to the original date in the 2021 budget.” He said the issue is “one of many differences between the two plans that has to be reconciled in the coming days.”

Lindsey Dyba, CEO of Futures Explored, a nonprofit that serves people with disabilities in Sacramento and the Bay Area, said her organization has a starting wage of $18.64 per hour. In general, the increase would give most disability workers $2 to $5 more per hour, she said.

Dyba said care providers have been counting on the pay raises, and some have been dipping into reserves thinking the new money would be coming through.

In most cases, workers in California receive about $16 to $20 per hour, Dyba said, meaning nonprofits like hers must compete with industries like fast food. The recent $20-per-hour fast food minimum wage that went into effect in April has made it harder to hire, she said.

When organizations experience staff turnover, clients are the ones who suffer, Dyba said. A lack of job coaching can cause people to lose their positions. Some workers spend a long time building an intimate rapport with clients who are nonverbal and medically fragile. A new staff member would need to start that process all over again.

Barry Jardini, executive director of California Disability Services Association, said losing state funds would also cost California more than $400 million in federal reimbursement money.

“The lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities rely on this,” Jardini said. “They rely on their (direct service professionals) for so many things in so many different ways, depending on what service they receive. Any delay or cut cannot stand.”

Advocating for wage increases

Jardini and Nguyen have been working to rally support for the wage increase. Nguyen in March wrote a letter drawing attention to the issue to Assembly and Senate health and human services subcommittee chairs. Dozens of lawmakers signed on in support.

She said she advocated on the issue to Newsom when the Asian American and Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus recently met with the governor.

The issue is personal for the assemblywoman, whose 9-year-old daughter is nonverbal and has an intellectual disability. As a child, she can access summer day programs through her school. But as an adult, Nguyen knows her daughter will likely need the services of a support professional to live a full life.

“If I’m not around, somebody needs to be there for her,” Nguyen said through tears. “And it’s going to end up being one of these disability workers that’s really going to take her in as one of her own and care for her. And I want them to have a life as well, too. The pay that they have right now is not enough for them to have a life and also care for my child when she becomes an adult.”

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