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Living wage in Massachusetts suffers a setback

In an apparently little-noticed setback to the effort to raise the minimum wage in Massachusetts, the legislative conference committee on the state budget rejected a living wage for direct-care workers in human services earlier this month.

The conference committee tossed out language that would have required corporate human services providers to boost the pay of their direct-care workers to $15 per hour.

That language had been proposed by Senator Jamie Eldridge and had been adopted in the Senate budget, but it wasn’t in the House budget, so it went to the conference committee. The conference committee chose not to include Eldridge’s language in its final budget even though the inclusion of the language would not have affected the budget’s bottom line.

In a press release issued in May when the Senate adopted his measure, Eldridge termed a $15-per-hour wage for direct-care workers “part of a growing movement to provide a living wage to every worker in Massachusetts.”

An aide to Eldridge said last week that the direct-care wage boost had been requested by SEIU Local 509, the state-employee union that represents human services workers. The aide said, however, that Eldridge had no immediate plans to file legislation to keep the momentum going for that living wage.

We have urged Senator Eldridge to keep the living wage movement going. In the human services arena, the lack of a living wage for direct-care workers appears to be closely related to the rapidly increasing privatization of care.

As state funding has been boosted to corporate providers serving the Department of Developmental Services and other human services departments, a large bureaucracy of executive-level personnel has arisen in those provider agencies. That executive bureaucracy is suppressing wages of front-line, direct-care workers and is at least partly responsible for the rapidly rising cost of the human services budget.

Ironically, a key reason for a continuing effort by the administration and Legislature to privatize human services has been to save money. However, we think that privatization is actually having the opposite effect.

In May, the SEIU released a report charging that major increases in state funding to corporate human services providers during the past six years had boosted the providers’ CEO pay to an average of $239,500, but that direct-care workers were not getting a proportionate share of that additional funding. As of Fiscal 2016, direct-care workers employed by the providers were paid an average of only $13.60 an hour.

Eldridge’s budget language stated that providers must spend up to 75 percent of their state funding each year in order to raise the wages of their direct-care workers to $15 per hour.

While the conference committee enacted deep cuts in DDS and other state-run programs as a result of a growing projected budget deficit, the Senate language on direct-care pay would have only required that providers direct more of the funding they were already getting from the state to their direct-care workers.

The SEIU’s report on the compensation disparity confirmed our own concerns in that regard. A survey we did in 2015 found that more than 600 executives employed by corporate human service providers in Massachusetts received some $100 million per year in salaries and other compensation.

Along those lines, we are concerned that the ongoing privatization of human services is having a devastating impact on state-run programs, particularly within DDS. As we recently reported,  funding for critically important state-run programs, such as state-operated group homes and service coordinators, is being systematically cut while funding is rapidly boosted to corporate providers.

This additional disparity in human services funding is resulting in the elimination of choices to individuals and families in the system and perpetuating a race to the bottom in care.

There appear to be few if any people in the Legislature who are questioning the runaway privatization of human services much less who are willing to buck the trend. An effort to require providers to offer a living wage to their direct-care workers would be a start in that direction.

We hope Senator Eldridge will continue to push for the direct-care living wage, and that he and others will begin to examine the connections that exist between low wages for direct-care workers and the ongoing, unchecked privatization of human services.

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