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The people who care for Maine’s elderly and disabled populations are facing uncertainties about whether to keep working during a global pandemic.
Growing fear about a contagion from the coronavirus COVID-19 has led some per diem workers — who are called on an as-needed basis — to stop showing up altogether.
Health officials emphasize that elderly people are the most at-risk for contracting the virus, but the people who care for them are in vulnerable positions, too.
Fear of catching the coronavirus or potentially passing it to their older patients has some workers wanting to take out the risk factor entirely.
“We’ve got call-outs of staff who don’t want to do the work,” said Gerard Queally, president and CEO of Spectrum Generations, a social services organization for elder Mainers based in Augusta.
“Many workers are making minimum wage or just barely above. Now we’re asking them to go into a high-risk situation.”
On Monday, the state Legislature approved a $73 million spending plan aimed at bringing up wages for health care workers and increasing the state’s testing capacities for the coronavirus.
The package includes a $20 million in-state spending plan for health care priorities. Of that, about $15 million consists of rate increases for direct health care providers for nursing homes and assisted living facilities as well as services for people with underlying health conditions and disabilities.
“People are just concerned now to even interact with the elderly,” Queally said. But when workers don’t show up to the job, it leaves agencies scrambling to find replacements.
And when they do, it can stir up anxieties for the client, who may be used to their regular caregiver and uncomfortable with an unfamiliar face. “I see both sides of it. The other thing is even if we get new workers, the [clients] are afraid of the workers,” Queally said.
Not everyone in the industry has the option to not go to work. Such is the case for Rachel Small, who has been working in home health care for 12 years.
She can take sick time off work, although she won’t get paid for it, Small said. Most workers don’t take sick time at all, because they live from paycheck to paycheck, including herself.
“I can’t not work,” Small said. Maine’s privately-owned elder care agencies set their own hourly pay for in-home care workers, but some are paying above the minimum wage as an incentive to keep staff around.