Some advocates for people with disabilities say they are feeling hopeful about additional state support after an initiative announced by Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Hochul has launched the Office of the Chief Disability Officer which will make recommendations to reduce employer barriers to hiring disabled residents. The office will oversee the use of federal and state tax credits to incentivize businesses to hire disabled people.
Kimberly T. Hill, who most recently worked as the principal analyst for the New York State Assembly's standing committee on people with disabilities, assumed the role of Chief Disability Officer Tuesday.
"We have never seen an executive in the governor's office who has expressed this level of interest and support for our issues," said Michael Seereiter, president and chief executive of the New York Alliance for Inclusion and Innovation, a trade group representing disability support providers. "What we need to see is that commitment sustained."
Without extra funding, aid agencies have been unable to fill critical direct-support roles, ranging from assistance with critical daily activities like getting dressed to help finding a job.
"Right now, we have 23,500 open jobs throughout the State of New York," Seereiter said.
The average hourly wage for direct support workers on Long Island last year was $16.20 per hour, according to a wage survey by New York Disability Advocates. Staff salaries are fixed and tied to cost-of-living adjustments that must be made by the state.
Advocates said at a Feb. 10 news conference that the tight budgets they must navigate cut into services, hurting New Yorkers, and they offered data to show how care providers and disabled workers fuel the economy.
Long Island’s nonprofit disability service providers employ more than 12,000 residents full-time, generating over $1.8 billion in economic impact, according to a report released in December by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, and presented at the news conference, which was held at AHRC Nassau Work Center in Freeport. Economic impact was calculated as the sum of worker wages, their spending on the Island, and the value of the goods and services they provide.
"Disability service providers are an integral part of your local economy and the state economy overall," said Maureen O’Brien, president and chief executive of New York State Industries for the Disabled (NYSID), which represents more than 100 companies and organizations statewide that employ mostly workers with disabilities and contract their services to government agencies.
"The message we’re trying to send is that people with disabilities can contribute enormously to the economic success of our communities if given an opportunity to be employed," said Stanfort Perry, executive director of AHRC Nassau, which provides services to adults and children with disabilities.
Advocates said at the news conference that they are asking the state to update language in a long-standing "preferred source" law that mandates municipal governments and agencies to contract out services to providers who hire disabled individuals. Advocates say the law, as it was written nearly 40 years ago, refers to disabled individuals as "severely" disabled, which can be seen as offensive and may deter some employers.