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Senator says he'll block minimum wage bill until state raises pay for caregivers

The governor's proposal to raise the minimum wage hit a snag Wednesday as a key senator said he would block the legislation until the administration agreed to increase pay for workers who care for developmentally disabled individuals.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, chairman of the Finance Committee, said he was "stalling" action on the bill — one of Gov. Martin O'Malley's top legislative priorities — in an attempt to help the caregivers. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat, said he has long advocated for disability workers because he's been inspired by what they do. He also has a relative who is developmentally disabled.

Advocates for the developmentally disabled say they have trouble finding and keeping people to do the difficult work of caretakers when the jobs don't pay much more than the minimum wage.

O'Malley's bill would raise the minimum wage for all workers to $10.10 an hour. Middleton is seeking even higher pay for thousands of state-paid workers at community-based providers.

"We've got vacancies, a high turnover rate, and they're dealing with a very, very vulnerable population," Middleton said at a committee work session on the minimum wage.

The committee heard from workers' advocates and from business representatives, including retailers, small business advocates and fast-food restaurant owners. Some urged lawmakers to consider a lower wage that workers would be paid during a six-month training period, while others appealed for different treatment of small locally-owned businesses and large national chains.

The panel plans to continue to study the issue and meet again next week to work on the legislation.

Middleton said he has been in talks with administration officials on pay for disability workers and hopes to reach an agreement soon. But he said he would not bring the minimum-wage legislation to a committee vote until his concerns are addressed about state reimbursements for those who tend to the daily needs of the developmentally disabled.

Nina Smith, O'Malley's press secretary, said the governor's office is "working with the senator to reach an agreement on this important issue."

The governor did propose a 2 percent increase for disability workers in the fiscal 2015 budget, which has passed the Senate and is now before the House. But even with that increase, their pay would fall below the proposed higher minimum wage.

About 18,000 "direct-support" workers employed by private providers tend to the needs of about 25,000 developmentally disabled individuals in homes and group homes across the state, according to Laura Howell, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Services.

The community-based care stems from a nationwide initiative begun in the 1980s to de-institutionalize people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including those with Down syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy. Provider costs are reimbursed under the state's Medicaid program.

Direct-support workers now make about $9.82 an hour, 35 percent above the current minimum wage.

Over time, advocates say that wage has become less appealing. In 2006, pay for disability workers was as much as 70 percent higher than the state's lowest-paid workers. Now, if the General Assembly approves O'Malley's proposal without adjusting pay for those caregivers, advocates say they would make about the same as unskilled entry-level workers.

Advocates emphasize that caregivers' jobs demand extensive training, individual initiative and personal responsibility.

Middleton also pointed out what he called a "fairness issue." He said employees at the state's two residential facilities — the Potomac Center in Hagerstown and the Holly Center in Salisbury — are paid substantially more than caregivers working for community-based providers. Employees at the residential facilities are on the state payroll, not paid through Medicaid.

Middleton and Del. Guy Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat, have pushed — so far, unsuccessfully — for legislation that would increase the wages paid to community-based disability workers, permanently pegging the rate at 50 percent above the minimum wage.

Legislative analysts estimated the first-year cost of that proposal at $20 million, with the state paying $11 million of that and the rest coming from federal funds. The cost would increase to at least $119 million in 2017 if the minimum wage were to increase to $10.10 an hour, fiscal analysts projected.

"It takes a very special person to do this kind of work, and we want to encourage those kinds of individuals," said Guzzone, who said his own interest in sustaining disability workers stems from extensive volunteer work he and his wife have done with the developmentally disabled community.

"They're not minimum-wage jobs," said Kathleen McNally Durkin, deputy executive director of The ARC Baltimore, which serves 6,000 adults and children with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Baltimore and Baltimore County. The nonprofit has about 860 full- and part-time staff working at seven centers and more than 100 homes.

Support staff must undergo rigorous training and background checks, explained Durkin, who is board president of the community services association. The staff are responsible for everything from giving medications to arranging social activities to tending to physical needs, such as bathing.

Hours can be long and stressful, Durkin said, and ARC struggles with high staff turnover. While the job demands can lead to burnout, pay is also an issue, she said, noting that about 40 percent of the staff work another job. "We've had people say, 'I really love it, it's really rewarding but I cannot do it for this amount of money,' " she said.

"We have been on the back burner too long, and it's time to be recognized," said Lawrence Jenkins Jr., a community living counselor who lives with and looks after three men in their 60s in an East Baltimore home owned by ARC. From 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. five days a week, he said he transports his charges to medical and dental appointments, handles grocery shopping and housekeeping.

"Every day is different, but every day is busy," Jenkins said. "There's no such thing as sitting back."

Middleton said he'd compromise by setting a "floor" on disability workers' pay so that they would earn 35 percent more than the minimum wage.

Warren G. Deschenaux, the General Assembly's chief fiscal analyst, said state analysts were still working to calculate how much the proposal would cost. Middleton acknowledged it would be "significant."

Howell, spokeswoman for the community services providers, said keeping disability workers' pay at 35 percent above minimum wage would be "a very important safety net."

"We can't afford to lose more ground," she said.

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