Friday, April 25, 2008

Developmental Disability Sector in Alberta Still Waiting for a Solution - The Budget Offered Nada

The Alberta government 2008-09 Budget funding announcement for the developmental disabilities sector is very disappointing. It is way too little and time is running out to fix the human resource problems in the disability services sector. Qualified staff shortages, unfilled vacancies and high turnover rates are largely due to the unconscionably low uncompetitive wage rates that the service agencies have been authorized/allowed to pay.

The natural consequences if such under funding are that vulnerable Albertans with developmental disabilities suffer. There is a high and unacceptable potential for mistakes due to negligence caused by insufficient staff levels and burn out plus more untrained and unqualified staff now are being recruited by necessity.

I have been working with these agencies professionally for about a year months on the funding issues and now on contracting issues. During the election Premier committed to “close the wage gap” between community based not-for-profit agencies and government employees who also provide services to Alberta citizens with developmental disabilities. This recent budget does nothing to close that gap. In fact it makes the gap with government workers even wider.

Here are some facts:

According to a recent independent consultant report the community based agencies pay about 2/3 of the wage levels of equivalent work in the government – and they receive much lower benefits.

To close the gap at the 50 percentile level of government workers would take about $182m – excluding benefits and only for current agency employees, ignoring the need to fill staff vacancies, meet population growth needs and to provide for any benefits costs at all.

Stop gap wage funding (sic) measures have been taken by the GOA in the recent past, a onetime grant of $11m in the Spring of 2007 from Seniors and Community Supports departmental year-end surplus funds – mad available because there were no staff to provide certain programs funds.

There was a one-time $15m grant last November that has apparently now been made part of the new funding base, a good thing.

Of the $30m additional money announced in the April 22 Budget, it is payable to the Persons with Developmental Disability Boards, the appointed government agencies who contract with the community groups to provide services. Only $24m of this total is going to the agencies to provide for front line worker compensation.

The $24m to community based agencies is about 5% but when inflation in Alberta in 2007 was 8.1% according to the Minister of Finance in a fund raising speech I heard her deliver on April 23 and minimum wage is going up at the same time, this funding level is not getting ahead of the human resource recruiting staff retention problem in the disability sector.

The PDD boards are retaining $6m of the additional budget funds, 20% of the total new funding, to cover inflation and their AUPE based staff wage and benefits increases… the same wages and benefits where the Premier has promised to close the gap for the community based agencies.

The September 2007 AUPE /GOA wage settlement was 14.66% over three years (4.9, 4.8 and 4.3%) with a $1500 signing bonus paid to each full time employee and pro-rated with part-time and seasonal employees. There were changes for many job classifications ranging from 7 percent to about 15% in the first year of the agreement.

There was an additional $6,000 - $6,300 northern living and a $12,480 annual living allowance for living in Fort McMurray. There was also an “improved core benefits package effective July 1, 2008 and an “enhanced benefits packages at the employees cost.”

The government “commitment” of additional agency staff compensation funds for next year was also announced at another 5% or $20m more dollars.

The gap is getting wider not smaller notwithstanding the Budget Speech saying “We will also increase funding to agencies contracted by our government to provide care for Albertans, to help
those agencies recruit and retain staff.” It will not happen at these funding levels.

Most of the community based service provider agencies have signed 6 months contracts that end October 1, 2008. They cannot continue to provide adequate service levels if they cannot attract and retain qualified staff. If serious levels of new funding are not forthcoming it leaves few options and it will all come to a head when these current contracts expire.

At the end of the day it is the GOA who is responsible to meet the needs of citizens with developmental disabilities. I hope they have a Plan B ready to meet the needs developmentally disabled Albertans if no additional funding for the sector is their Plan A.