Individuals with developmental disabilities, their family members, and staff from the Arc of San Diego packed senator Marty Block’s office on January 22.
“Finally, a legislator opened the door to us,” said Raquel Vasquez, an outreach coordinator for the nonprofit that provides services for people with disabilities.
According to Vasquez, California’s disability community has not had a funding increase since 1999. Because last year’s budget failed to produce a promised 2.6 percent increase, the community has taken to holding demonstrations outside lawmakers’ offices and crowd-funding to purchase billboards to raise awareness of their plight.
Steve, who receives Arc services, was extremely nervous in the foyer while signing into the guest book. “I never spoke in front of a senator before,” he said. But once inside Block’s office, Steve’s talking points were clear:
“Most of the people who used to work with me, they want to make more money, so they have to leave, and they leave all these clients without no job coach, and we don’t like it. It’s, like, ‘You’re not going out today, you’re not going out tomorrow….’ We lost five job coaches last year.”
Block, who represents District 39, told the group: “We think it’s important to increase the minimum wage for workers who are barely making it, but we’ve been told by several providers [of disability services] that if we increase minimum wage it will hurt them because they can’t afford to pay any more than they’re paying. So, we’re looking at some way to tie an increase in minimum wage to an increase in funding for various providers in the [Department of Developmental Services] community.
“We haven’t gotten any consensus yet; that’s one of the things we’re looking at. We are aware of the problem because most Democrats in Sacramento support increasing minimum wage, but there are these unintended consequences.”
Some programs that provide services to the disabled have already shut down. Clients could lose job training, supported-living programs, job coaches, and other services.
A client named Sandy told Block that through the Chula Vista Arc she has learned to cook and to speak up for herself. She also learned to paint and presented Block with one of her paintings.
There is money in governor Jerry Brown’s 2016–2017 budget, but many in the disabled community believe they are being used as pawns. Brown is seeking a new health-plan tax, and in order to ensure Democratic and Republican support he has tied a disability increase to the passage of the tax.
Joe Tontodonato, director of Community Living Services, told Block, “There’s about 300 employees that fall under my department. When minimum wage went up on January 1, most of them were getting paid less than ten dollars [an hour], and these are folks providing essential care, folks administering powerful medications to our clients…. We lose good staff to McDonald’s, to Starbucks.
“We feel, to a certain extent, we’ve been strung along. Now there’s a surplus [in the California budget], but our increase is bootstrapped to a health-plan tax. We really need support. There is a sense of urgency here.”
Block responded: “ I understand the problem; the harder part is figuring out the solution. Governor Brown talked yesterday in the state of the states speech about putting a lot of money into a rainy-day fund; saving for a rainy day is what my grandmother told me to do, but it’s raining, and certainly in your industry.”
The clients are concerned about their future.
Joe, an El Cajon client, said, “My interest for them is to fix the bill, to make it successful so we can live independent…. I was in an institution in l953–’59, when governor Pat Brown was in office. Afterward, Arc placed me in a regular job for 25 years.”
Karen, another client, said she was worried about losing rights the Lanterman Act provides. This act, passed in 1969, says people with disabilities have a right to services and “to live like people without disabilities. If you take them away from us, what I heard just a couple years ago… People were saying we might end up back in institutions, but we don’t want to go back to institutions; we like going into the community and going forth.”
(corrected 1/26, 1:20 p.m.)