Addressing fundamental issues; like jobs, or livability

The announcement that the Hillside Family of Agencies would cease operations in Seneca County — resulting in the loss of 235 jobs from within the county’s borders — was stunning news for a lot of people.

Employees have called it devastating, and after speaking with someone who went through a similar situation in recent years an interesting point came out that was reiterated through a conversation I had with a Hillside employee.

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An acquaintance, who worked for a major manufacturer in Auburn for several years, recounted what it was like finding out that he was faced with the choice of relocating or being laid off. “It was almost as if the community became the isolated, third part of the equation,” he explained. “We paid it very little attention and ultimately moved.”

At that point, they had lived in Auburn their entire adult lives. Their families lived in Auburn. Their parents’ parents were even lifelong residents of Auburn. But, with a single announcement that his job was either relocating or going away completely, the community they called home became a non-factor.

It was a wild transition that neither of them expected.

The Hillside employee I spoke with reiterated all that. “If my job is in Rochester, we’re moving to that area. It wouldn’t really make sense to commute,” she said. At the time, she did not know if she was going to have an opportunity to relocate within the Hillside Family of Agencies, but it clearly was on employees’ minds.

While Hillside was quick to announce that about 60 positions would be repurposed and relocated within the company, it’s still a loss of 235 jobs for Seneca County. Some officials were hopeful that other employers would soak up those workers, but that’s not a guarantee even if those employers are seeking out employees.

Hillside says several factors led to the decision to close: national and statewide trends concerning the demand for residential treatment services; challenges concerning recruitment and retention of direct-care staff locally; and under-utilization of residential services across other Hillside campuses. Necessary, but cost-prohibitive improvements that would be required to the campus buildings also were a factor, according to Hillside.

Maria Cristalli, president and CEO of Hillside Family of Agencies, said the decision was “best” for the youth they serve, their families, Hillside employees, and their Family of Agencies as a whole. They made it clear that these types of cuts should be expected across the industry if direct-care pay is not addressed because retaining employees is hard when wages are low. James Purcell, CEO of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, said he expected to see more reductions like this one.

The loss of 235 jobs and the reality that some of those jobs were not paying enough to retain employees reminds us that our problem is fundamental.

If elected officials are going to talk about solutions then they need to address the fundamentals, or Maslow’s Hierarchy. When Maslow talked about “basic needs” he referred to things such as food, water, warmth, rest, security, and safety. In this context, we’re talking about a job that pays enough to provide shelter, food, transportation, and medical care. If you make enough money to have a home, maintain reliable transportation, have access to food and medical care, you’re in a solid place.

Those building blocks then allow a person to get into building relationships, developing friendships, and feeling accomplishment in their own life.

The U.S. Census Bureau identifies median personal income as around $26,000 annually in Seneca County. That breaks down to about $500 per week, before taxes.

Taking that into account, how reasonable does it seem that “basic needs” can be met by the individual when individual income is that low?

We need elected officials to champion solutions. They may not always be popular, but if they’re necessary for the county’s long-term stability, it’s vital that they be addressed. Find developers who are willing to build affordable rental units, who are interested in creating access to good, healthy food, who create partnerships that allow Seneca County to expand access to transportation.

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