Opinion: Let’s pay community service providers

It’s time to pay community service providers a wage worthy of the work they do in our state.

Just as the Governor and State provided financial assistance to the restaurant industry to keep these small businesses from closing in every community, private community service providers are also small businesses. These community providers are found in every city in our state, from Meeting Street School, Family Service of Rhode Island, Child & Family and the Trudeau Center to Newport Mental Health, and these small businesses employ more than 40,000 Rhode Islanders. Like other companies, they have operating budgets, losses and hundreds of employees.

They experience a turnover rate of over 32% in the workforce due to low wages. The state must stop paying 60 cents on every dollar to community service providers who care for our children, our families and our seniors.

What happens when someone quits a $14 an hour job for $20 an hour at Lowe’s or McDonald’s? It means losing the continuum of care that you and your family have come to expect. This means closing early intervention programs for 0-3 year olds who can avoid the need for special education, saving municipalities thousands of dollars. It means the loss of addiction programs for your fentanyl addicted son or daughter. It means the loss of behavioral health care that helps you cope with the stress of money issues during a pandemic. This means that the personal care your parents or grandparents receive in their home so they can age in place and stay out of a nursing home is now gone.

We take the social services safety net of the community provider for granted. We believe he will always be there for us. But that won’t be the case. Once employees leave for a new job with less stress and more money, the programs must close. It’s basic economics. Rhode Island residents will be denied services. The ability to rebuild capacity again will take a decade.

Did you know that Rhode Island’s 10 early intervention agencies have stopped all new care for children? This leaves the state in danger of violating a federal mandate for early childhood intervention, which is why it is no longer a moral issue but an economic issue.

The governor has money under the CARES Act to allocate for this, which must be spent by December 31. The House Finance Committee is due to meet in December and vote on legislation that will further fund community providers. Then the General Assembly must get going when it meets on January 4th. We need to vote on legislation that includes $12.5 million in retention bonuses for direct care staff of community providers and $5.5 million to stabilize early intervention services. This legislation should have a definitive timeline with funding distributed by mid-January. There’s no time to lose.

Years ago the state made the political decision to contract with private community professionals to provide services and best practices for early intervention, behavioral health, disability community intellectual and home care. It is time for the state to realize the cost of doing business with these small businesses. This workforce deserves to be compensated competitively and fairly for the work they do.

We need to act. Our children, our families and our elders deserve to know that we are a community that cares.

Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, a Democrat who serves Jamestown and Middletown, is chair of the House Technology and Internet Committee and a member of the House Finance Committee.

Jill E. Washington