Home Health Care Workers Need to Be Cared For Too

Those who take care of our most vulnerable need and deserve a living wage

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We all knew the approval of a gradual rise to a $15 minimum wage in New York state would be a double-edged sword. And now one industry is certainly feeling the sharp pains.

A shortage of home health care service workers has been a problem in the state for some time. And with a rapidly aging Baby Boomer generation, there are more people to take care of, and less people to take care of them.

New York employs about 326,000 people to help disabled or elderly citizens eat, bath, dress, change adult diapers and perform other various housekeeping tasks in order to keep patients in the comfort of their own homes instead of in hospitals or nursing homes. But it’s predicted that the state will require about 451,000 workers by as soon as 2024.

Already the lowest-paid workers in New York’s health care system, home health aides make an average $11 an hour, although it is much lower in upstate regions. By contrast, the statewide minimum wage is currently $9.70. For fast-food workers upstate, it is $10.75 — and that will increase $1 every year over the next few years.

So yes, by as soon as next year, someone working at McDonald’s will make more an hour than the average home health care worker — or anyone else working minimum wage for that matter.

And that is why there is so much concern in the industry right now.

Indeed, last year, a Home Care Pulse Benchmarking Study found that more than a quarter of home care providers nationwide saw increasing minimum wages to be the top threat for the industry. And $15 wage proposals are gaining momentum in other states.

Since Medicare and Medicaid shoulder much of the burden of home care services, significant wage increases are unlikely anytime soon since both programs are facing tremendous financial pressure. In fact, adjusted for inflation, home care workers on average are actually earning less than they were a decade ago, according to P.H.I., a nonprofit research and consulting group.

With low wages, a big responsibility, little or no benefits, late and weekend shifts, hours of mandatory extensive training, a high rate of injury and until recently, no entitlement to overtime pay, home health care workers might be more inclined to leave for a different industry with less demands, including fast-food, either to make paying their bills easier or out of sheer necessity to sustain themselves and their families. The annual turnover rate for home care workers is already an estimated astounding 40 to 60 percent.

The New York government has an important objective ahead — provide more financial incentives for home health aides to first enter the field and then keep those jobs competitive enough so they remain in it.

A coalition of agencies that serve the developmentally disabled has pursued just that, using the hashtag #bFair2DirectCare to call on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to include in his executive budget $45 million each year for the next six years to help boost wages for home health workers. The governor has yet to include the money in his budget, even though the funding has the support of the chairmen of the mental health committees in each chamber of the Legislature.

Cuomo spent the last few years marching for a wage raise for all of the state’s fast-food workers. It’s hard to understand why he can’t seem to do the same for some 326,000 people whose work is to keep our most vulnerable alive and comfortable.

If the governor wants an eventual $15 wage for everyone, like he has said he does, he should start with those people. The workers and their employers need and deserve the $45 million that should be included in this year’s budget that would raise their wages. Heck, Cuomo has proposed half that amount to upgrade the state’s ski areas.

There is little argument otherwise because there is no alternative. If the current trends continue, it will leave our elderly and disabled further neglected, which in some cases will force their relatives to take over caring for them — if they even have any family that can.

Doing nothing will also put further strains on the nonprofits that employ home health care service workers, which might force some to ultimately go out of business. That would be especially disastrous for rural areas upstate, like in the Adirondacks, where communities can be very far in between.

And it’s not like this problem is going to go away. There are some projections that say nearly one in five New Yorkers will be 65 years of age or older by 2025. Who is going to take care of them? An already dire situation is only bound to worsen in the coming decades if little is done.

And it’s not just a problem in New York. Home health aide shortages are being seen from Massachusetts to Wisconsin to Iowa.

Indeed, The Des Moines Register identified in a December article a very simple reason why we need to address this now: Because it will impact everyone.

At some point, “it’s highly likely that you, a family member or friend will need the services of a paid caregiver, a direct care worker, to assist in the activities of daily living,” the newspaper reads.

Let’s hope our state lawmakers can also comprehend that we will all suffer if we don’t take care of those who regularly take care of us.

Luke Parsnow is the Monday Editor and daily copy editor/page designer at The Post-Star, a Pulitzer-Prize winning daily publication located in Glens Falls, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

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