Sunday 24 September 2017

Disability services cut to meet pay rises

Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Cerebral palsy sufferer Sally Ann, 27, one of the casualties

AS the father of a 27-year-old with cerebral palsy who needs intense care, Tom Healy cast a cold eye over the caterwauling that greeted a government minister's suggestion last week to defer incremental pay increases to public-sector workers.

His daughter Sally Ann's condition is on the profound scale. She lives with her parents and attends a day-care centre in nearby Clifden, where parents regularly bolster the financial support it gets from the State with regular fundraising and bucket-shaking. The budget for disability services was cut again this year by 3.75 per cent, so every penny counts.

When Leo Varadkar, the Minister for Transport, last week questioned the wisdom of paying increments to public-sector workers at a time when services are being cut, he kicked into the spotlight an issue that has long burdened the budgets of organisations providing services for those with disabilities. Pay is off limits, frozen by the Croke Park Agreement, but increments, according to Mr Varadkar, are a "grey area".

Mr Healy, politicised by a lifetime's battle for services for his child, sits on the local consultative committee of the Health Service Executive, where he has raised the same question.

"I asked the question in March, if this whole thing of increments was deferred would it give them much leeway in relation to avoiding cutting services? They said yes it would give a whole lot of leverage," he said.

"My understanding is a big gap could be bridged. In principle it's totally unethical and immoral to cut services as a result of the Croke Park Agreement. The voluntary sector was not represented in those talks at all. When you live with what we live with, caring for our daughter 24/7, our people are the most vulnerable section of our society and they deserve a lot better."

Perhaps more than any other group, intellectually and physically disabled people and their families have seen the effects of it as increments eat into the diminishing pool of funds to provide services.

In many organisations providing services to the disabled, staff salaries are linked to public-sector pay scales and therefore are obliged to match the incremental pay increases. This means that while budgets are shrinking, pay bills are often rising.

St Patrick's in Kilkenny, which provides day, residential and respite care for people with physical and intellectual disabilities, spends €100,000 a year meeting the cost of incremental pay rises for a staff of 270, while its budget has been reduced by 3.75 per cent. If increments were deferred, St Patrick's could use the money to restore services that have been cut.

The Cope Foundation expects to pay an estimated €600,000 in increments this year with equally dwindling funds. Cope says it has "protected" services so far this year but it is concerned about the impact of cuts in the future.

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St Michael's House in Dublin will pay €300,000 in increments to staff this year at a time when its budget was cut by more than €6m. It said that services will not be curtailed but had "no comment" to make on whether the increments should be deferred.

About half a dozen other organisations declined to divulge the cost of the staff pay increases, saying only that they were bound by the public-service pay agreement.

According to one manager, who spoke off the record, many organisations are caught in a pincer of diminishing funds and rising pay bills but are reluctant to complain publicly. "Deferring increments would make a huge difference. But management cannot be seen by staff to be looking for it," he said. "What you end up with is a budget cut, plus an increase in salary costs. It's very hard to take."

Organisations have to find the money from somewhere. They cannot cut pay so they have to look elsewhere for savings, and often that means frontline services. It is often a subtle clawback, such as curtailing the opening hours of day centres -- closing down for so-called "training days", leaving dependent parents stranded -- or cancelling recreational outings and art or music therapies.

"It's the small things that are the things that make the service human," said the manager. "It's like having a sitting room but without an arm chair in it."

The Brothers of Charity in Limerick simply stopped paying increments but the Labour Court ruled last year that withholding them represented a pay cut and ordered them to be reinstated retrospectively. The cost to the charity was a reported €2m. In a statement, it said this "inevitability" reduced the quality of services to people with disabilities.

In contrast, staff at Sunbeam House in Wicklow have not had an incremental pay increase since 2009. They agreed to the measure temporarily in 2009 until finances improved but the situation has only got worse. The organisation, which looks after adults with intellectual disabilities is on a budget of €20m. The payroll already accounts for 85 per cent of the budget and paying increments would cost an additional €300,000 a year.

According to John Hannigan, its managing director, to meet the costs he would have to let 30 to 40 staff go. "There were discussions with unions about going to the Labour Court and if we were to go I know we would lose. The reality is even if we get the judgment we would have to make the decision of making people redundant, and we can't do that under Croke Park."

Management and unions reached agreement through the Labour Relations Commission. Staff agreed to forgo increments while Sunbeam agreed to pay them when things improve, and Sunbeam has not had to shut services: "It is a testament to the commitment of staff more than anything else," said Mr Hannigan.

Sunday Independent

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