October 19, 2017
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When this Maine caregiver shared her struggle to get by, strangers showed up with gifts

By Rosie Hughes, BDN staff
Updated:

Update: On June 12, the Maine Senate voted down LD 1466, which had an estimated price tag of more than $212 million over the next four years. Senate Democrats voted in favor, with one abstention. All Republicans voted against it. 

Salena Sawtelle has new shoes. Until last month, Sawtelle had been wearing worn-out shoes to her job as a certified nursing assistant, or CNA, at Stillwater Health Care nursing home in Bangor. Her feet ached, but with an hourly wage of just $11.37, she couldn’t afford a new pair.

That’s now changed. Since Sawtelle was the subject of a BDN Maine Focus article that documented the low wages and poor conditions of Mainers who provide hands-on direct care to seniors, she has received about 20 offers of shoes from readers across the state.

A woman from Ellsworth drove the 45-minutes to Bangor to pay for a pair of shoes that she had insisted Sawtelle pick out for herself. A man from Cape Elizabeth showed up at Sawtelle’s work to drop off an envelope with a check for $100.

“Put this toward some new shoes,” read a sticky note attached to the check. “You and other assistants don’t get recognized for the work you do.”

And card upon card arrived at Sawtelle’s work through the mail. “Your job is very important and deserves more compensation,” wrote one person in loose cursive.

“You are an angel for the work you do,” wrote another, in slanted, all-caps script.

“Your caring professionalism so impressed me. You ARE a queen,” one retired registered nurse penned in pink ink.

Tucked inside the cards were checks, cash and gift cards to places like Lamey Wellehan, Super Shoes and Hannaford.

In all, Sawtelle received over $1,000 worth of gifts, she said. With a monthly take-home pay of around $1,600 a month, “it’s been huge,” she said. The experience has taught her that “there are good people out there.”

But there are only so many shoes one person needs. So after buying herself two new pairs of work clogs, Sawtelle purchased a couple pairs of scrubs (hers all had holes in the thighs where they’d rubbed thin) and a pair of work shoes for a colleague whose shoes had holes in them. She’s trying to save the rest.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers are considering a bill aimed at raising wages for Sawtelle and other direct care workers, whose wages have declined in real terms over the past decade.

Last week the health and human services committee of the Maine Legislature voted on LD 1466, a bill that would raise Medicaid reimbursement rates for long-term care providers by 10 percent over each of the next two years. The expectation is that these employers would then pass the raise on to direct care workers, an umbrella category encompassing CNAs, personal care aides and home health aides.

The committee vote split along party lines, with Democrats supporting an amended version of the bill that would raise reimbursement rates and initiate a long-term study on direct care workforce issues, and Republicans voting against it.

“[The high expected cost] does tend to color your vote,” said Rep. Richard Malaby of Hancock, one of the six Republican members of the committee who voted against the bill.

The bill will now go to the House and Senate, where its future will be determined.

If the state does not raise reimbursement rates, and thereby does not provide employers with the means to raise the wages of direct care workers, the consequences could be grim, according to long-term care advocates. Without raising wages, they say, Maine will struggle to attract the 2,470 new direct care workers the Department of Labor says will be needed between 2014 and 2024.

“Maine’s long-term care policy makers can’t keep under funding the pay of direct-care workers and still expect thousands of them to show up for work,” said Steven Dawson, founder and former president of PHI, an organization that researches and advocates for direct care workers.

Maine direct care workers made 15 to 25 percent less than their counterparts in neighboring states in 2015, according to the Maine Council on Aging.

For Sawtelle, while the gifts have delighted and moved her — even to tears — they have not changed her resolve to move to a state where she can make more money. Though Sawtelle doesn’t yet know where she will relocate, she plans to move out of the state in July, leaving Maine with one less CNA.

Sawtelle has mixed feelings about leaving. The residents she cares for have become like family, she said, and she’ll miss them.

“You’re told not to get attached to the residents,” she said. “But how can you not?”

 

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.

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