Snip. That’s Governor Charlie Baker trimming back the cost of overtime for personal care attendants who assist the elderly and people with disabilities.
With it, he loosens a strand of the safety net that protects the independence of some of the state’s most vulnerable residents and gives them dignity of choice.
A new rule decreed by the Baker administration essentially imposes a 40-hour per week limit on personal care attendants, or PCAs, who assist the elderly and people with disabilities. While there’s a transition period and some exemptions, the new policy means most workers — who currently earn $14.12 an hour — won’t be able to earn overtime. And that means the most frail and severely disabled people under their care must scramble to find multiple attendants to get through a 24-hour day. Finding good workers isn’t easy.
On Tuesday, advocates representing the state’s 38,700 caregivers and the 26,000 people they serve rallied in front of the State House to protest the new policy. Their supporters included state Representative Susan Gifford, a Republican from Wareham and self-described fiscal conservative, who told the crowd she’s “shocked” by the new rule and is asking the Baker administration to reconsider it. “I think this administration is doing a good job of trying to find a way to save money and cut costs, but this is not the way to do it,” Gifford said afterwards.
It’s not. As state Senator Barbara L’Italien, a Democrat from Andover, said at the rally, “Our budget is really our core values.” As corporations like GE are coddled with tax breaks, are we really going to balance the state budget on the backs of those in wheelchairs? And are we going to cap a caregiver’s salary at $564.80 a week?
Baker is capping those salaries after a ruling from the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which upheld US Labor Department rules granting federal wage and overtime protections to the nation’s two million home-care workers. When the court decision was announced last year, 1199SEIU, United Healthcare Workers East, the local union representing personal care attendants, said it would benefit “thousands of PCAs who were previously denied overtime due to an arcane loophole in the law.” Baker found a way to rein in the celebration.
Last June, Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to achieve a $15 per hour starting wage for personal care attendants. That’s the good news. But the full pay hike doesn’t take effect until July 2018, and in the meantime, Baker is capping overtime.
According to the executive office of Health and Human Services, the projected PCA budget plan — funded through MassHealth —is $720 million for the current fiscal year. That’s an increase of $80 million from the previous year. A breakdown on wage-versus-program growth was unavailable.
The new rule doesn’t limit or decrease the hours of care a person can receive. But as a practical matter, it makes it harder for individuals to find caregivers to cover their needs, since they have to find more people to cover the same hours. Remember, personal care is just that — personal. This new rule breaks up longtime relationships between caregivers and those they assist.
Tuesday’s rally featured speakers like Barbara Rivero, 32, of South Boston, a quadriplegic, whose ability to live an independent life requires 130 hours of care. She works with five different caregivers, and the new rule would affect two of them. “We want to let the government know that what they’re doing is wrong,” she said.
It’s unclear whether this new rule will actually save any money. What is clear is that it upends an already tenuous network of caregivers. PCA advocates are scheduled to meet with HHS Secretary Marylou Sudders to discuss the matter, but thus far have been unsuccessful in their efforts to meet personally with Baker.
Gifford, the Republican lawmaker, said he “absolutely” believes Baker should meet with PCA advocates. But it’s so much easier to snip away without looking into the eyes of those at risk of slipping through that net.
Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
Correction: An earlier version of this column had the wrong day of the rally. It was on Tuesday.