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Advocates continue to push for full funding of Fair Pay for Home Care Act in state budget

From left to right, home care worker Michelle Spady, Syracuse resident Sally Johnston, and State Sen. Rachel May (D-Syracuse)
Ellen Abbott
From left to right, home care worker Michelle Spady, Syracuse resident Sally Johnston, and State Sen. Rachel May (D-Syracuse)

As state budget talks continue in Albany, advocates for New Yorkers with disabilities are hoping legislative leaders and the governor agree to fund the Fair Pay for Home Care Act, which would increase pay for workers in home and community based care services.

One of the biggest proponents is State Sen. Rachel May (D-Syracuse), who recently visited one Syracuse household to get an idea just how important this is.

Inside, Home care worker Michelle Spady uses a pulley-type device to get 78- year old Sally Johnston out of bed. A hammock swing moves her from the bedroom to the bathroom.

Spady comes to help Johnston every day.

“Getting them up in the morning. If I don’t come, she stays in bed all day, because she depends on us to be there. Breakfast, wash, clean up. It’s like being home with a kid, getting them up in the morning and getting them ready."

Johnston says it wasn’t so easy to find Michelle. She spent months interviewing potential workers for this highly intimate job, as part of a consumer directed program offered through Medicaid that allows individuals to hire caregivers.

"I had what I called swinging doors,” Johnston said. “In out, in out, then I have to chase down the key and change the locks. It was quite the struggle."

May said a reason is that the direct health care worker shortage is driven in large part by low wages, and Spady agrees.

“I’m a mother of eight, and I’m making $13.20 an hour,” Spady said. “People like us, we really do need the pay."

The legislation would pay home health care workers 150% of the minimum age, with a price tag of $5 billion the first year. May admits it’s a tough ask, but said there will be savings ultimately, because fewer people end up in nursing homes on Medicaid’s dime, and those low paid workers can get off of Medicaid and other social service programs.

"The idea is this is an investment,” said May. “You have to do it up front to get it started. But eventually it pays back more than we invest in it."

May is optimistic. She said lawmakers everywhere have constituents grappling with this issue. And this year the state is in a good place financially. She’s opposed to only offering these workers a one-time bonus, saying it won’t solve a structural problem of low pay. Ultimately she said it’s just not right.

“We’re recognizing that we depend on Michelle and hundreds of thousands of people doing the work of care, and we don’t show them that we value the work they do by the way we pay them,” May said. “We are just not living out our values."

As of now, both the Assembly and Senate budgets fully fund the Fair Pay for Home Care Act. A final budget is due April 1.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.