Two groups of deeply divided wheelchair users rolled into the City Council chambers Tuesday night to wage battle over which of two agencies would provide emergency services to the disabled community.
After some debate between Easy Does It, the agency that has been providing emergency services for several years, and Emergency Services Provider, a recently founded competing nonprofit agency, the council voted to accept Deputy City Manager Phil Kamlarz’s recommendation and approve a two-year contract with Easy Does It.
The heart of the difference between the two providers is defining the services to be provided, Kamlarz said.
“What is an emergency service? Is it a substitute (attendant) service?” he asked.
EDI says that an emergency is an unusual event that leaves a disabled person unable to accomplish a daily routine from time to time. ESP, on the other hand, says a person without a personal attendant for several weeks could be considered in an emergency situation.
EDI charges “overuse” fees for those who use the service regularly. ESP would not charge these fees.
This question is rarely faced by the majority population for whom getting up, eating, moving bowels and washing are routines they scarcely think about.
For many disabled people, however, when an attendant gets sick, has a personal emergency or quits, it’s not a simple case of missing a few services for a day or two. The client may be left hungry, in bed, with critical, unmet health needs.
So when a disabled person faces three weeks without an attendant, the question must be asked, “Does the individual need ‘emergency services’ or does the person need a substitute attendant?”
EDI would respond that the person in question needs a substitute attendant – these services are not currently available – whereas ESP would be more likely to say the individual needs emergency services.
Adding to the complexity of the issue is that hiring attendants has become very difficult in recent years.
In a booming economy, workers, who in other times may have become attendants, now may have an array of job opportunities. Adding to the dilemma, people who work low-paying jobs, such as giving attendant care, are having an increasingly difficult time finding affordable housing in Berkeley.
EDI’s services are dependent on attendants who work for them. But, like individuals, EDI faces a shortage of attendants and therefore has been unable to respond to all requests for service in a timely way, the agency’s staff said.
The solution they found is to attract workers by paying them well. And so, in the new contract with the city, EDI promises to pay attendants $2.75 over the current rate. Less experienced attendants will earn $16.50 per hour while actively serving clients, and more experienced attendants will get $18.50 an hour.
When they are waiting for calls or on-duty between calls, attendants receive about $6.25 per hour.
The raises will be funded through revenue the city is adding and increased client fees. The bulk of the emergency services budget comes from a tax measure, Measure E, approved by voters in 1998. It provides $624,000 each year, and the city will add $22,000 annually to this fund.
Client co-pay will go from $7 to $9 per hour in the first year of the contract and from $9 to $11 in the second year.
“We try to pay enough, so (attendants) stay and work for us,” said Easy Does It President Peter Trier.
ESP, on the other hand, had proposed to hire people for regular shifts at $9.75 per hour. They would work out of an office, and do office work when they were not serving clients. There would be one pay rate only.
Clients would pay a minimum of $7.50 per hour, with those who could afford more, paying more on a voluntary basis.
Miya Rodolfo-Sioson, chair of the Commission on Disability and a member of Kamlarz’s advisory group, lobbied for ESP.
“A lot of people pay $7.50 or $8 an hour (for attendant services),” she said. “People who tend to be the poorest, need the most attendant hours.”
Rodolfo-Sioson added that, since the ESP plan calls for attendants to work out of an office in Berkeley – EDI attendants are on call by pager – they could easily get to the client within the 30-minute window. EDI has been unable to consistently provide service that quickly.
ESP supporters said they object to EDI’s added client fees for “overuse” of the service. “The new program would not charge overuse fees,” said Phil Chavez.
Michael Pachovas, ESP’s executive director, pointed out that what is overuse for one client is not for another. He accused EDI of a “one-size-fits-all” mentality.
But Councilmember Dona Spring said it is not realistic to expect an attendant to work for $9.75 an hour for ESP, when some disabled individuals are paying more.
A motion by Councilmember Kriss Worthington to give the contract to ESP failed for lack of a second. A unanimous vote on the first year of EDI’s contract followed. In a third vote, seven councilmembers voted to support the EDI contract for the second year of service, while Worthington and Councilmember Diane Woolley abstained.
In other council business Tuesday night, Councilmember Betty Olds removed her item from the agenda that called for a ban on the use of cell phones by cyclists.