It’s time to pay community service providers a wage that is worthy of the work they do in our state.
Just as the governor and the state provided financial help to the restaurant industry to keep these small businesses from closing in every community, the private providers of community-based services are small businesses, too. These community providers are in every town in our state, from Meeting Street School, Family Service of Rhode Island, Child & Family and the Trudeau Center to Newport Mental Health, and these small businesses employ over 40,000 Rhode Islanders. Like other businesses, they have operating budgets, losses and hundreds of employees.
They are experiencing a turnover rate of over 32% in the workforce because of the low pay. The state has to stop paying 60 cents on the dollar to the community service providers caring for our children, families and seniors.
So what happens when someone leaves a $14-an-hour job for $20 an hour at Lowe’s or McDonalds? It means the loss of the continuum of care that you and your family have come to expect. It means the closing of early intervention programs for children 0-3 that can avert the need for special education, saving municipalities thousands of dollars. It means loss of substance use programs for your son or daughter addicted to fentanyl. It means loss of behavioral healthcare that helps you cope with the stress of money woes during a pandemic. It means the personal care your parent or grandparent receives at their home so they can age in place and stay out of a nursing home is now gone.
We take the community provider social service safety net for granted. We believe it’ll always be there for us. But it won’t. Once employees leave for a new job with less stress and more money, programs have to close. It’s basic economics. Rhode Island residents will be denied services. The ability to build back capacity again will take a decade.
Did you know that all10 of the early intervention agencies in Rhode Island have stopped any new intakes for children? This leaves the state in jeopardy of violating a federal mandate for early childhood intervention, which is why this is no longer a moral issue but an economic issue.
The governor has CARES Act money to allocate for this which needs to be spent by December 31. The House Finance Committee needs to meet in December and vote on legislation that will further fund the community providers. Then the General Assembly needs to hit the ground running when it convenes on Jan. 4. We must vote on legislation that includes the $12.5 million in retention bonuses for direct care staff of community providers and $5.5 million to stabilize early intervention services. This legislation should have a definitive timeline with funding distributed by the middle of January. There’s no time to waste.
Years ago, the state made a policy decision to contract with private community provider professionals to deliver services and best practices for early intervention, behavioral health, the intellectually developmentally disabled (IDD) community and home care. It’s time for the state to get real about the cost of doing business with these small businesses. This workforce deserves to be competitively and fairly compensated for the work they do.
We need to act. Our children, families and seniors deserve to know that we are a community that cares.
Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, a Democrat who serves Jamestown and Middletown, is chairwoman of House Committee on Technology & Internet and a member of the House Finance Committee.