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Disability rights group asks state to pay more for janitorial contract

Roman Battaglia
Delaware Public Media

A Delaware disability rights group is asking lawmakers to increase the budget for janitorial staff at state buildings to avoid eliminating jobs reserved for people with disabilities.

The state contracts with Ability Network Delaware — the state's umbrella disability rights organization — to provide janitorial service for state buildings; the contract requires three-quarters of those jobs go to people with disabilities, who may otherwise face difficulties finding consistent employment.

But the Ability Network says the state’s current budget for the work won’t cover increasing supplies costs and market increases in workers’ wages and could force them to stop providing services to some buildings they currently clean. Ability Network Director Thomas Cook says giving up the contract to clean even a single building could cost dozens of jobs for people with disabilities.

“If we take the largest building in the state, which is the Leonard L. Williams Justice Center [in Wilmington," he said, "that would be a lot of jobs – somewhere around 50 or 60 jobs.”

Cook and others point out if Ability Network and its subcontractors can’t afford to provide janitorial services to state buildings, the state will have to rely on cleaning services that don’t employ people with disabilities and charge market rate – unlike the Ability Network, which receives less than market rate for the same services.

Jane Schuler, the employment programs manager for one of Ability Networks’ subcontractors in Kent and Sussex Counties, says preserving jobs for people with disabilities should be a priority for the state.

“The work that we do allows Delawareans with disabilities to experience the satisfaction of meaningful work, receive a paycheck and contribute to their household, as well as the local economy," she said during a hearing held by Delaware's Office of Management and Budget on Monday to review funding requests for the 2024 budget. "All the while, companies that do not employ individuals with disabilities are receiving a higher rate for the same responsibilities and scope of work.”

The Office of Management and Budget proposed a nearly $400,000 increase in appropriations for the janitorial contract in 2024; Ability Network estimates a market rate increase would require as much as a $1.2 million increase. Cook also points out that the state will already have to increase pay for janitorial staff in 2024 when the state's new $13.25 minimum wage takes effect. Most of the janitorial workers hired by Ability Network Delaware's subcontractors earn minimum wage, though some earn more.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.