ALBANY, N.Y. — A staffing crisis in the state agency that cares for individuals with disabilities in group homes had prompted a plan to move dozens of residents into a day center in the Finger Lakes region where cots were being set up in a gymnasium last week.

But a person briefed on the matter said the plan was shut down the same day by Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration after they became aware of what was happening.

The residents, from several group homes in the Wyoming County area south of Rochester, were going to be moved into a gymnasium at the Silver Lake Day Services center in Perry, a facility run by the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities. The Times Union obtained a copy of the tentative floor plan that showed where cots were going to be set up.

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It’s unclear whether the facility was authorized to house overnight guests.

Jennifer O’Sullivan, a spokeswoman for Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, last Wednesday confirmed the agency “will not be moving forward with this move of residents into the day centers, but are continuing to evaluate other options to ensure safe staffing levels.”

O’Sullivan said their provider agencies, like others across the country, “are facing a workforce shortage of crisis proportions. … We recognize that staff have been working under a tremendous burden of significant overtime conditions and pledge to do everything within our power to improve this situation for them moving forward under the new administration.”

The agency also is considering a plan to consolidate group homes “to maintain quality care and workplace conditions,” she added.

Mark Kotzin, a spokesman for the Civil Service Employees Association, said the union is working with OPWDD to raise starting pay rates to help recruit and retain workers to deal with the staffing crisis afflicting group homes and other facilities.

“What we do know is that Finger Lakes (Developmental Disabilities Services Offices) is experiencing critical staffing shortages just like the rest of the OPWDD operations throughout the state,” Kotzin said. “Due to this, there is a plan in place by OPWDD to temporarily suspend services at 10 group homes and five day habilitation facilities within the Finger Lakes DDSO, beginning on Dec. 2, but it is our understanding that the residents of those group homes will be relocated to other group homes. We know nothing about using the Silver Lake Day Services center to house residents.”

Earlier this month, the Public Employees Federation, the state’s second-largest public labor union, wrote a letter to Hochul urging her to sign legislation that would require the state Office of Mental Health, the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities and the Office of Children and Family Services to provide a report to the Legislature a year before closing any facilities. The reports would provide details on staffing levels, vacancies, actions to recruit employees and waiting lists for services.

“We are seeing an alarming number of state-operated group home closures and they are negatively impacting clients, families and communities across the state,” Wayne Spence, president of PEF, wrote in the letter to Hochul. “Most of these closures stem from a lack of staff — a situation that could have been addressed earlier if the agency had taken the appropriate steps to recruit and/or retain staff.”

The crisis in the industry that cares for individuals with disabilities has been so severe that thousands of nurses and other medical personnel who work in state agencies that care for individuals with disabilities and mental illness have not been mandated to receive coronavirus vaccinations or face the loss of their jobs — which was a policy that went into effect earlier for medical professionals in hospitals and other health care settings.

The governor’s office previously said the vaccination mandate, as issued, only applied to agencies subject to Public Health Law and regulated by the state Department of Health. The office also said that nurses who work in facilities such as OPWDD “might just be supportive staff” and a “nurse at a hospital is primarily providing care, in health care.”

The governor’s office added that the mandate applies specifically to “public health facilities (and) a wing in a prison that has a medical unit is not considered that.”

Hochul, however, previously had said “there’s no reason to have an exception” to the vaccine mandate.

It’s unclear whether those workers are subject to a vaccine mandate announced by the federal government recently. Union leaders have said low wages and difficult working conditions are the primary reasons for the staffing crisis, not the vaccine mandate.

© 2021 Times Union
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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