Hal Owen, 92, toasts Sally Davis with a glass of water before taking his morning medication at the Camden Hills Villa senior living facility in 2016. Credit: Gabor Degre | BDN

Maine has the oldest population in the country. This aging population is confronting a shortage of reliable, well-trained direct care workers. These workers include nursing aides, personal care aides, home health aides and others.

Why do we have a direct care workforce shortage? The median annual salary for a home health care worker aid was about $24,000 in 2018, slightly above the $16,460 poverty level for a family of two. That’s about $11.57 an hour; hourly pay can be lower in rural communities. Cooks and janitors make more than direct care workers. It’s not just the low pay — 88 percent of domestic workers don’t receive work-place benefits, which includes health benefits, overtime pay, minimum wage or any other benefits. Because of the low wages, variable work hours and the inability to access work-place benefits — 24 percent of home care workers live below the federal poverty level as compared to about 11 percent of the general U.S. workforce. This also creates a high turnover rate, which creates a shortage of reliable, well-trained direct care workers.

We need to reverse this trend and invest in our local schools, universities, and other organizations to create a direct care workforce profession. We need to incentivize our youth to choose a rewarding career in the direct health care field.

Congress has introduced the Direct Creation Advancement and Retention of Employment Opportunity Act to address the need for well-trained direct care workers. This act intends to provide funding to 15 entities to invest in strategies to recruit, retain, and advance the direct care workforce and implement models and strategies to make the field of direct care work more attractive.

States, local boards, universities, non-profit organizations or entities that employs or works directly with direct care workers are eligible for these grants. Apprenticeships, on-the-job training, professional development, and mentoring programs are good investments for the grants state and local communities will receive. Maine has created a 15-member panel to explore how to solve the direct care worker shortage.

As a city and community, we should look at our current direct care situation, identify the gaps, and develop plans to address those gaps to create careers and employment in direct care that provide sustainable jobs, fair pay, and benefits.

Brent Hawkes is a candidate for Bangor City Council.