Editorial: A reprieve for service workers

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

Massachusetts' most needy citizens - sick, elderly and disabled - depend on the state for their daily care. That care mostly comes through nonprofit human service providers, who depend on the state for the resources needed to make their payrolls.

But the state has let them down, thanks to a contracting procedure that has left some providers stuck in contracts that haven't increased in 21 years. That has left direct care workers grossly underpaid, resulting in high employee turnover, jobs going unfilled and compromised care. A recent audit found most of these nonprofits are on shaky financial ground.

Under the state's outdated procurement system, payment rates for contracts that are automatically renewed don't change with escalating expenses. For some agencies, that means the state is still paying them based on what they were spending on fuel, health care and salaries in 1987.

Agencies have done what they can to keep their employees' wages in line with increases in the cost of living, and have repeatedly begged the Legislature for help, usually to no avail. Whenever the Legislature has extra cash, it is spent on other priorities and when lean times come around, the service workers feel the pain.

But there is hope. The Senate last week gave unanimous approval to a bill that would provide for regular cost-of-living adjustments to ongoing state contracts. It wouldn't boost employee pay rates overnight, or bust an already-tight budget, but it would fix a badly broken procurement system and, over time, make it more possible for human service providers to hold on to their best workers.

With the Legislature set to adjourn at the end of July, time in this session is short. We urge the House to act quickly to approve the bill, S. 2764 (formerly S. 65), and get it to Gov. Patrick for his signature. Those who care for the state's neediest citizens have their own needs that have too long gone unmet.