EDITORIALS

Maine GOP can’t keep ignoring the wage crisis among workers caring for the sick, dying

Posted May 19, 2017, at 8:20 a.m.

Public legislative hearings in Augusta don’t tend to attract crowds. But on May 1, 24 people from across the state spoke in front of the Health and Human Services Committee to support a bill aimed at raising wages for those who provide hands-on, long-term care to seniors and disabled Mainers.

Among the 201 bills considered by the committee this legislative session, few have had more public support than LD 1466. Among those who spoke at the public hearing were a woman from Berwick who was denied essential care because, she was told, there were no available direct care workers in her area; the chief operating officer of a Portland nursing home that is unable to fill 22 certified nursing positions; and a professor of social work at the University of Maine who learned through extensive interviews that most home care workers who quit do so because they can’t afford to continue working at such low pay.

Unfortunately, despite widespread public support for the bill, Republicans on the committee voted unanimously against it. One of their main concerns is that the bill is too broad and therefore too expensive. There’s no price tag attached to the bill yet, but it is expected to cost the state several tens of millions of dollars in coming years as the raises go into effect.

The high cost of LD 1466 is unavoidable, as the bill patches a gaping hole in the way the state reimburses long-term care providers through MaineCare, Maine’s version of Medicaid. That hole has resulted in a significant decline in real wages for direct care workers — an umbrella term that includes certified nursing assistants, personal care aides and home health workers — over the past decade. The vast majority of them are women.

LD 1466 is intentionally and wisely broad. It targets all direct long-term care workers, including those employed by nursing homes, home settings, adult day care centers and assisted living facilities. In contrast, other less expensive bills being considered would raise wages for just one part of the long-term care sector. LD 643, for example, addresses only the home care sector, leaving out nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

Such piecemeal approaches to the problem won’t work. If wages are raised for just home care workers, for example, direct care workers will likely flock to the home care sector, leaving nursing homes and other long-term care facilities even more desperate for staff than they already are.

“It’s like a balloon,” said Jessica Maurer, the executive director of the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging, at the public hearing for LD 1466. “If you squeeze it in the middle the air’s gotta go somewhere.”

As the BDN has argued before, LD 1466 is the best chance lawmakers have to ensure the state has enough workers to take care of its burgeoning elderly population in the years to come.

That said, the bill isn’t perfect. Rather than require employers to put the raise toward wages, it leaves it up to them to decide how they spend the extra funds. Still, the bill should pass as it’s widely expected that most long-term care employers, hampered by high turnover and vacancy rates, would put the additional resources to direct caregiver wages.

The problem is acute. The share of Mainers over age 65 is projected to grow from nearly one-fifth to one-third of the state’s population between now and 2030. As a result, the state projects an additional 2,470 jobs will be added to the direct care workforce between 2014 and 2024.

Whether or not employers will be able to attract enough workers to fill these jobs depends on how much the state, through MaineCare, provides employers for wages.

Maine’s lawmakers in the House and Senate should vote to pass LD 1466 as a first step in properly compensating those who will, ultimately, usher all of us through our last phase of life.

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