Local nonprofit organizations are addressing the need for direct care employees by raising wages for what they call a vital but often undervalued profession.
In September, Heritage Christian Services said it would increase minimum wage for full-time direct support positions in its residential program to $17.25 an hour and will provide a 5.4 percent cost of living adjustment for most of the staff.
The pay bumps mean some 2,180 staff members benefit from the cost-of-living adjustment, and roughly 1,740 frontline workers will see an additional boost to their hourly wage.
Marisa Geitner, the organization’s president and CEO, said raising wages for direct support professionals recognizes the essential services they provide.
“There is an elevated need to recognize care professionals in a manner that is commensurate with the jobs they are doing,” she said, adding that direct support workers are essential to the organization. “We have to staff our front-line positions, or we don’t have a business.”
Heritage leaders said the wage increases were possible through state funding, including a cost-of-living adjustment from the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, as well as the agency’s emphasis on financial stewardship to support its strategic priorities.
Heritage Christian also boosted wages for care professionals in May of 2021, to $15.75 from $13.25. Certain shifts provided an opportunity to earn up to $19 an hour.
Geitner noted that the number of workers entering the field has flatlined as the need for the services Heritage provides continues to increase.
If she could, Geitner would add 100 workers to provide staffing relief for the organization, particularly when it comes to staffing its residential homes that operate around the clock, as well as its day habilitation centers.
She would then add 100 additional positions to help keep up with demand in the community.
Geitner added that the wage increase extends beyond a budgetary issue; it’s also a social justice issue.
Employees and care professionals at human services agencies across the country continue to confront gender- and race-related wage disparities, she added, noting some 80 percent of professionals in the workforce at Heritage identify as women, with 34 percent women of color.
The most recent pay increase for its frontline staff reflects the organization’s ongoing commitment to supporting and furthering diversity, equity and inclusion, she noted.
Heritage is also providing educational opportunities for employees so they can grow their skills in the field.
“As a society, we know we value the work direct care workers do, now we have to show we value the people who do the work,” Geitner said.
She added that Heritage also feels a sense of responsibility as one of the area’s largest nonprofits to take the lead on the issue.
“As a larger organization, we have more flexibility,” she said. “When we can go first, we will go first.”
Hillside – another of the region’s largest nonprofits – also enacted wage increases, setting the agency’s new minimum wage of $17 an hour for all positions there in early October.
The amount is up from the $15 minimum wage the agency set in May of 2021.
Maria Cristalli, Hillside’s president and CEO, noted the change will also positively impact many staff whose salaries are already above this new minimum.
“This is an important step in raising compensation for the many critical roles that our employees play in the lives of children and families,” she said.
Hillside employs nearly 1,800 people in a range of service areas including direct care, clinical and education. The organization is looking to fill a number of positions.
Its residential treatment and community-based programs support the needs of nearly 10,000 children, adults and families every year.
Cristalli noted that many direct care workers across New York – many who have young children – qualify for public assistance, so increased pay is critical.
“Our message in taking these actions is to show our government and state leaders that we want to support these workers who have given so much,” she said, adding “without workers, we can’t do the work.”
The nonprofit sector is not the only one making wage adjustments. Industries across the board are taking similar steps as employees’ views about work, as well as their opportunities for jobs through remote work, have increased.
The Rochester region has worked collectively to address the workforce challenges locally and at state and national levels, Geitner and Cristalli said.
They cited the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative’s Level Up Champions initiative as an example of such a local collaboration.
Since RMAPI introduced the initiative in September 2021, more than 100 organizations that collectively employ more than 100,000 people have made a commitment to wage enhancement, including Heritage and Hillside.
A total of 48 organizations have moved to $15 an hour for the first time since RMAPI’s wage enhancement challenge to the community in 2021, and more than 12,000 jobs have moved to $15 an hour or above.
Geitner said the collaborations help Rochester address the challenges better than other regions across the country.
“We’ve got a long way to go, but I’m proud of the progress we’ve made,” she said.
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