We will discuss at another time all the other facets of the budget negotiations regarding Daniel’s Law, Parity and Qualified Mental Health Associate Title but most of our time and energy has been dedicated to the COLA.
For the last seventeen years, there has been a COLA statute on the books for the human service workforce. Virtually every year, besides two, the COLA was not with stood (meaning it was not added to the State budget). Translation is that our sector has lost 30% of funding over that time period. Can you imagine how much different lives of people we work with would be if they had that kind of funding. Smaller waiting lists, less emergency room visits, less incarceration and most importantly less deaths of despair due to overdose and suicide completion.
Last year, Governor Hochul came into office and provided the largest one-year COLA ever at 5.4%. It was much needed and greatly appreciated. In this year’s Executive Budget, the Governor provided a 2.5% COLA for the Human Service Sector. The CPI was 8.5% so advocates continued to call throughout budget for an additional 6.5% increase. Both Houses added the 8.5% total in their One House bills. During final negotiations, the Legislature added 1.5% instead of the 6% needed to get to 8.5%. The total is 4% across the sector.
The reaction is frustration and anger . Despite the entire sector speaking with one voice, despite massive grassroots campaigns, despite great champions in the Legislature, despite multiple media appearances, to only add 1.5% to a workforce that is largely comprised of a workforce of workers of color (75%) and women (70%) is very disappointing. Hospitals got an additional 2.5% on top of a 5% increase, and nursing homes and assisted living facilities also received a 1.5% on top of a 5% increase, so other choices on investments were clearly made. They are deserving of the increase, but where is the fairness and equitability for human service providers?
How to Change the Dynamic:
While we had real champions in the Legislature, we clearly did not have enough. To include a 6.5% increase in the one house bills and at the end of day, only provide 1.5 % increase is not acceptable to the hard working women and men in the not for profit sector. We need to bring our concerns to each individual legislator. Let them know that we are disappointed that there was only a 1.5% increase in the COLA this year. We need deeper support for the COLA. The leaders in the Senate and Assembly have been empathetic to mental health and human services but the demands for State support are many, and in this competitive environment we need to factor in that we are not enormous institutional providers, and thus we start with a competitive disadvantage.
Tools for Change:
1) Assemblymember Gunther has introduced a bill that calls for a Retirement Study Bill for the not-for-profit sector. The main way we can retain people in our field is by providing them with an attractive benefit package. The creation of an affordable retirement benefit for employers and employees, with an enhancement from the State and Federal Government, could be a game changer. The not-for-profit sector is being called upon by the State to fulfill its NYS Constitutional mandate to ‘aid, care and support the needy’, and we should be supported in responding to this call with reimbursed benefits like the State itself provides its employees. We are starting with a study bill to look at structural and cost options. As soon as there is a bill number, we will let people know. We will also be seeking a Senate sponsor.
2) Senator Brouk has introduced a bill that includes a yearly COLA tied to the CPI. We need legislative support so it passes both houses.
3) Voter Empowerment: Despite doing all the things that check mark successful campaigns—-unity, grass roots efforts, media hits, communication with Legislators, our campaign only had a 1.5% COLA increase to show for it. Given that we do not have a lot of money for political contributions, we must instead focus on voter empowerment. Every legislator in the Assembly and Senate is up for re-election next year. We should do what we have done in Albany, using the successful model developed by the late Joe Lemmond and have a voter forum. Under his leadership, every two years, we held a forum where we invited all incumbent Senator and Assemblymembers from the area to speak on mental health and COLA issues. We bring together a group of people in a non-partisan venue and get them to speak on our issues. It is incredibly powerful and something that we should and must do around the State. We will be working with our community colleagues to do this around New York State.
4) Changing the current dynamic is possible. We have empathetic leaders, both in the Executive and the Legislature. We must do our jobs to coalesce them around the understanding that nothing that we want to accomplish is possible without a strong and stable workforce. We must continue to raise our collective voices in support of our goals.
To the hundreds of thousands of you that called, sent letters, emails, tweets, and showed up in person we thank you. We will ask you to redouble your efforts in the future, as we redouble our own.