About 6,600 Minnesotans who provide care to family members with disabilities will continue to be paid less than others who provide care. Unless state lawmakers have a change of heart, the attempt to have equal pay for personal care attendant (PCA) services will have to wait for either a legal appeal or the 2012 legislative session.
During the 2011 legislative special session, a 20 percent reduction was made in the pay of PCAs who care for a family member. PCA agencies sued last year to block the cut, which was made in a closed-door deal to reduce a $5 billion state budget deficit.
Gov. Mark Dayton promised he would support restoring the pay cut, which was originally estimated to save the state $24.1 million over the biennium. That amount has been reduced to about $17 million due to the delay in implementing the cut. Dayton is eyeing part of a $73 million payment HMOs have made to the state and federal government for the PCAs.
The cut means some family member PCAs have seen their hourly wage drop from $10 to $8 or less an hour. On March 23 Ramsey County District Court Judge Dale Lindman ruled that the cut would stand, and any changes would have to be made by state lawmakers. The eight PCA agencies involved in the lawsuit will appeal, but that could take six months or longer.
In the ruling Lindman stated, “The rationale behind the distinction between relative PCAs and non-relative PCAs is based on the moral obligations that relative PCAs have towards helping their family members and the valid assumption that relative PCAs will continue to provide care even if affected by a pay cut. If relative PCAs discontinue their services as a result of the (pay cut), qualifying individuals are able to continue receiving services from a non-relative PCA without the 20% cut.”
That reversed a temporary restraining order he issued last fall that blocked the cuts. The order launched a confusing series of actions by PCA agencies. Some made the cut with the idea of restoring pay later if necessary. Others may have to tell families to repay part of their wages if the cut is sustained.
The cut is especially hard on Minnesota people with disabilities and their family members in rural Minnesota, who sometimes lack access to PCA agencies. It also affects people of color and cultural communities where family or kinship care is a priority, said Tim Plant, chief executive officer of Healthstar Home Health a PCA agency in North St. Paul.
“The law requires unequal pay for equal work” Plant said. Some gave up careers and higher salaries to care for family members. One worry is that nonfamily members will not be able to provide the level of care needed for some patients who require complex care. Or, family members will be forced to put their loved ones into nursing homes, which would cost the state more in the long run.
“We were extremely disappointed with the judge’s ruling,” Plant said, “We feel it’s absolutely wrong.”
The Arc Minnesota, an advocacy group for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, has also objected to the ruling. “Judge Lindman may have ruled that this cut is legal, but it is not right,” said Steve Larson, Senior Policy Director for The Arc Minnesota. “It is wrong to devalue the crucial role that 6,600 direct care staff provide to their families here in Minnesota. These workers are often the only ones who understand the unique culture and language of their relatives. They are often the only ones available in Greater Minnesota to care for their family members. They have often made great personal sacrifices to ensure their loved one receives needed support, including leaving other paid positions and providing many hours of uncompensated care.” The Arc Minnesota has called for state lawmakers to use some of the state surplus to restore the cuts.
A group of DFL House members announced March 29 they would try to amend the omnibus health and human services bill to restore the wage cut. Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, called the reduction “one of the most tragic cuts” made last year. Her amendment was a chance to fix an injustice that is putting families at risk.
Liebling saw her amendment shot down March 29 by Republicans, who said restoring the cut would be too costly. During the floor debate, Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said the cut was one of many difficult choices forced by a tight state budget. Abeler pointed out that Minnesota is one of only 21 states that pay for family members to care for a relative with disabilities. The rationale for cutting family members’ wages was that family members are less likely to quit providing care.
Liebling and others said the cut is simply unfair. “This is really a labor of love,” she said. “We should be thanking these people, not paying them less than a stranger would make….Why in the world would we ask these families to bear the brunt of our budget deficit?”
At the news conference prior to the House floor session, Barbara Christenson, 72, of Brooklyn Park discussed her family’s plight. Her 77-year-old husband, Charles, provides 48 hours of care each week for their son Steven, 48 (diagnose at 26 years old).
Steven Christenson has multiple sclerosis and has seizures. He needs 24-hour care. Steven Christenson is unable to work. “How could we put him in a nursing home when he already has lost so much?” Barbara Christenson said.