Photo Credit: Photo by Marc Gronich
Assemblyman Tom Abinanti speaking to colleagues during his bid to become attorney general in 2018.

Licensed summer camps can now hire licensed mental health professionals, according to a measure signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo. The bill would allow children’s overnight camps, summer day camps, traveling summer day camps and camps for children with developmental disabilities to employ certain licensed professionals in order to better serve the mental and physical needs of children during the summer.

The law will also allow children’s regulated summer camps that meet the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs threshold (20 percent or more campers with a developmental disability) to hire chiropractors, physical therapists and assistants, occupational therapists, speech language pathologists, audiologists, athletic trainers and applied behavior analysts during the camp season.

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“All that we wanted to do as an industry was to hire people that could adequately and competently care for children in the summertime when they’re not with their families and they’re at these summer camps,” Susie Lupert, executive director of the American Camp Association of New York and New Jersey, told The Jewish Press. “It was a real battle to get there, which was bizarre but finally it worked, and now camps can hire mental health professionals if they want so that if a child has a real issue they can speak to someone with a license instead of just a camp director or someone on staff who might not be able to offer them the support that they need.”

Sometimes when lawmakers craft such legislation it opens up a can of worms for other changes to be considered, as in the present case.

Camp operators have hired health care professionals as independent contractors even though, unbeknownst to the camp director, hiring an independent contractor for this purpose was never legal under state labor law. Officials with the Department of Health apparently did not know the law, and authorized camp officials to use independent contractors in violation of labor law.

“It would be considered a felony if they were caught but no one was ever watching for this. If anyone was ever caught in this it was considered a class A felony,” Lupert said. “No one knew that this was a felony. No one understood that this was a thing. Governor Cuomo didn’t understand. It was just this weird kind of loophole that kind of existed. If someone brought this up, the camp director could actually be arrested. We were desperately trying to get rid of this so that there was absolutely no way that anyone could ever get in trouble for simply providing care for children.”

The problem arose when the policy was in conflict with two state agencies – the Department of Labor and the Department of Health, which oversees camps. Specifically, can a camp legally hire an independent contractor or must the staff person be an employee, with the camp paying all the taxes that go along with that designation?

“This bill solves the problem with the Labor department,” Assemblyman Tom Abinanti (D-Greenburgh, Westchester County), the bill’s sponsor, told The Jewish Press. “It allows the camp to have an employee. It doesn’t matter what the contract between the employee and the camp reads. The Labor Department comes in and says the person is sleeping at the camp, the person is here working at the camp, the person is here at the hours the camp director set for this person. That’s an employee. I don’t care if you pay them but now you have to pay them at least the minimum wage. Now all those Labor Department rules kick in and once the rules kick in, the camp director is in violation of the health law because the Health Department said you could not hire someone as an employee.

“The camps now have the freedom to hire, employ or to contract with mental health professionals in any way they see fit,” Abinanti said. “We made it legal under the health law to have these employees or independent contractors, no matter what the Labor Department calls them.”

Another issue not resolved under this measure but will arise next year, Abinanti said, in what is known as a chapter amendment. This concerns whether an emergency medical technician (EMT) can be hired by a camp to serve as its medical director.

“The chapter amendment will provide that EMTs can be designated medical health directors for any camp. Opponents to this measure wanted a licensed health professional as a medical health director. It turns out that the requirements would be too strict for most of the camps,” Abinanti said. “That person would have to be on the campgrounds 24 hours a day. EMTs have been functioning as camp medical directors all along. That’s the current law. All we did was restore the current law.”

This part of the measure also brings in another state agency, the State Education Department, which licenses EMTs.

“Even in my camp, my health director is an EMT but I have a doctor coming in once a week. Is it that I hired a doctor, or are they just coming here to provide a service? So now they’re able to hire a social worker, okay great,” Rabbi Joel Rosenfeld, the executive director of the Liberty-based Camp Gila D’Bobov in Sullivan County, told The Jewish Press. “I’m basically using contractors for professional services. Every camp, legally, must have a health director. Now they are telling you the health director cannot be an EMT. So you have to find that professional, an RN or a doctor.

“I know Camp Agudah, their doctor wants $70,000 to come. It’s not affordable and it’s almost impossible for all camps to find RNs or MDs to be their health directors. For large camps that charge $10,000 a kid, secular camps that have millions and millions of dollars in tuition fees, they can afford it. A small camp, a yeshiva with 100 bochurim, that charges $1,000 to $1,500 a summer, cannot afford an MD on staff.”

Other camp officials liked the change but pointed out the limitations to having an EMT in charge of a camp’s medical care.

“I’m glad to hear of this change which is long awaited and needed,” said Avi Sacks, the chief operating officer of the Parksville-based Camp HASC and an EMT, told The Jewish Press. “Aspirin, Albuterol, Epipen and Narcan are the only items EMTs can administer. An EMT is not allowed to give medication to a camper. An EMT cannot even give you an Advil. You can have an EMT to just bandage wounds. They [EMTs] are certainly not going to be able to give all the campers’ meds because it’s not something the State Education Department would ever allow. We’re just happy that this has been figured out. People are working together for the betterment of campers.”

Amidst all the confusion, Abinanti’s message to camp directors is not to worry.

“We’re not getting into redefining the duties of an EMT over a camp bill. That’s a whole different argument,” Abinanti said. “No one is preventing a camp director from putting a nurse in as a chief medical director at a camp. Every one of these camps has the right to hire a doctor or to hire a nurse and has a right to have them on contract if they don’t want to hire them as employees. Nobody’s stopping them from doing that. Most of what happens at camps requires an EMT and not a doctor or a nurse. Camps said they couldn’t afford an upgrade to a higher form of a healthcare professional. What we’re doing here is making health care professionals available and giving the mental health professionals parity.”

Officials at Parksville-based Camp Gan Israel did not want to comment for this story because of a lack of information. Many camp directors are either confused by this measure or were unaware that the Health Department had in effect allowed them to break the law. (The measure has been making its way through the legislature in multiple forms for the past 15 years and is still incomplete.)

Lupert said her association, along with the New York State Camp Directors Association, will update their members about the changes. No word yet as to how the Association of Jewish Camp Operators will inform its membership.

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Marc Gronich is news director of Statewide News Service. He also operates the website JBizTechValley.com. He has been covering government and politics since 1981. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press.