UPPER MARLBORO – The developmental disabilities community has taken their advocacy from testimony to chants in an effort to secure county funding.
On April 11, dozens of direct service providers (DSPs) and the individuals they care for rallied outside the County Administration Building to request funding in the county budget to help the DSP agencies, most of which are non-profits or not-for-profits that get funding through the state government, stay economically viable in the face of a high county minimum wage.
“We’re here because there is a crisis going on in Prince George’s County for people with disabilities and the provider agencies that support them,” said Ande Kolp, chairwoman of the Prince George’s Provider’s Council, a coalition of 26 DSP agencies. “Our funding is based on the state minimum wage, and in Prince George’s County, minimum wage is $2 higher than the state minimum wage. So we don’t have enough to operate.”
The PGPC is asking for $3.5 million from the county to serve as stopgap funding to allow them to pay employees and meet other operating expenses while they work towards a long-term, statewide solution.
“In other jurisdictions where this has happened, like Montgomery County and the District, the government has stepped in and provided a supplement to its providers,” Kolp said. “We know that the revenue system is very different in Prince George’s County, we get it. We’re not asking for nearly what those providers get. We’re asking for a gap.”
The county has previously said it does not have money in its budget to provide the subsidy and instead pledged to work with the state delegates and senators to restore state wage factor cuts. Kolp said this session, the Maryland General Assembly was able to successfully fight the governor over a proposal to reduce the compensation increase from 3.5 percent to 2 percent.
“The county has been supportive. They know about the issue, they’ve been emotionally supportive, but we need their funding too,” she said. “We appreciate the administration in this county, we do appreciate the partnership that we had at the state level, and we’re just looking for that step two of what we thought was a two-step process to solving this problem.”
Last year, the county council also granted a minimum wage waiver to DSP agencies to allow them to avoid any penalties should they be unable to meet county minimum wage requirements. However Kolp said while the council meant well, the waiver is not a viable solution.
“I understand why they did it. They were looking for some options,” she said. “But if any of us used the waiver, the problems would be worse. I don’t know of any provider who has or is going to take advantage of the waiver.”
At the rally, DSP staff, as well as individuals and families they serve, spoke about the impacts of the low wages. One major impact is a turnover rate of more than 50 percent.
“The same staff I have watched that have love and passion for their field are the same ones I watched walk away from it for the feeling of disrespect and being unappreciated by the county,” said Cynthia Winston, an employee at Calmra Inc. with 10 years experience in the field. “We are so much more than minimum wage workers. We are advocates and we are responsible for all aspects of people’s lives. And we shouldn’t have to quit our jobs to go flip burgers at McDonald’s and Burger King because they pay more.”
Rhys Greenlee, a direct support staffer at New Horizons, said he is responsible for mentoring 10 individuals with developmental disabilities. He helps them with money management, reading and comprehension, getting out into the community, and more. But he said the low wages are making it hard to help his own family.
“Personally, I have to work two jobs just to take care of my family. The low wages, if they could be brought up some, maybe it wouldn’t be so hard on me and my family,” he said.
Other DSPs help their clients bathe, take medications, train for jobs and get transportation there, interface with clients’ bosses, and more.
Often, the clients build close relationships with their staff, and they feel the disruption when staff changes.
“I see firsthand the compassion and caring for my son. It affects the individuals when there is constant turnover of staff members leaving to take jobs with higher pay,” said Lorenzo Green, the father of a son with developmental disabilities. “When staff members go, it leaves a void with many of the individuals.”
“Please help, please help, please help,” his son, Jonathan, said.