Minimum Wage and Community Supports
As I’m sure you all know that the minimum wage in Arkansas was increased on January 1, 2017. The increase of $.50 per hour raises the state minimum to $8.50 per hour. I’m pretty sure I can speak for my colleagues in the state when I say that I’m happy for the dedicated folks who provide supports to individuals who have disabilities—any increase in wages for our employees is welcome.
Sadly, our state’s Department of Human Services isn’t as happy with the increase. At Arkansas Support Network, we began preparing for this increase in wages as soon as annual plans for the individuals we support were up for renewal. With very few exceptions, we don’t generally start any of our employees at minimum wage. We believe it’s necessary, however, to increase our other hourly employees to keep pace with the higher minimum wage, and when we submitted new plans, we included those wage increases for all staff. They were summarily denied. The managers who work for DHS actually refigured the plans, and reduced the rates without consulting with us at all. When I asked about this, I was told that, if we had employees who are paid minimum wage, they would look at those individuals on a “case by case basis.”
I asked how one branch of our state government (our legislature) could pass a law dictating that wages be increased, and another branch (DHS) could ignore this law, or just refuse to abide by it. The answer, of course, isn’t one that I can accept. According to the DHS leadership, they aren’t telling me not to increase wages, they’re just saying that they have no responsibility for helping make that happen. That’s just ridiculous in my opinion. The whole point of raising the minimum wage is to increase wages for all workers, not just those on the bottom rung.
Our State Economic Forecaster, Dr. Michael Pakko, in a report on KTHV Channel 11, said, “If you’re basically transferring $1 to a minimum wage employee, that dollar is coming from somewhere else.” Because our industry is built on a cost reimbursement system, that “somewhere else” should logically be DHS. Our employees depend on that reimbursement for their livelihood. For our state to increase wages, but to then turn around and refuse to increase our reimbursements sends a sad message. That message comes through loud and clear—we don’t care about the employees who do this important work, and by extension, we don’t care about the people they are paid to support.
Here are the facts: Anyone who runs a business will tell you that, when the minimum wage is increased, hourly wages must be increased for existing staff, or those individuals will leave and go elsewhere. In our part of the state, the unemployment rate is 2.6%. If you drive down any street in the region, you will see “we’re hiring” signs in front of every business. In Northwest Arkansas, a manufacturing company that starts new, inexperienced employees at $13.50 per hour is displaying a huge sign looking for new employees. If we can’t compete at some level for those employees, our services and supports will suffer.
My message to families is this: We, along with our colleagues across the state, will work hard to continue to provide good supports, but we all know that if we can’t hire good workers, the eventual result will be, at best, mediocre supports. I don’t even want to think about the “at worst” scenario. Let’s just agree that those outcomes could be tragic. Please talk to your legislators. Talk to the Governor. Talk to everyone who will listen. This is critical to the future of our services, and to the future of quality community supports in Arkansas.
Keith Vire, Ph.D.
Chief Executive Officer
Arkansas Support Network