Jeff Baril told lawmakers Monday that he and other direct care workers shouldn’t have to beg the state for a fair wage for the critical work they do helping their disabled clients with the tasks of daily living.

An Auburn resident, Baril said he was embarrassed when he learned his teenage nephew was earning more working at a fast-food restaurant than what his agency could pay workers who are highly trained and skilled at helping clients with their daily life functions.

“He’s flipping burgers and I’m holding the care of multiple people’s lives in my hands,” said Baril, who trains direct care workers. He and others in the field spoke to lawmakers on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee on Monday as the committee considers legislation that would require the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to increase its Medicaid reimbursement rates.

The hope is that boosting the pay of direct care workers beyond the minimum wage will encourage people to stay in the field, providing stability to the clients and families they serve.

Kaitlyn Reynolds, a direct care worker from Levant who also is a certified nursing assistant, said she’s worked providing care to the disabled for five years through a Bangor-area agency, but is earning just $12.50 an hour, 35 cents more than the current minimum wage in Maine.

“My base schedule is 40 hours a week, but I must work at least one extra shift a week to keep my bills barely paid,” Reynolds said. “It is a struggle. I make $50 too much to get government assistance just working the bare minimum 40 hours. Christmas is normally when our credit cards get maxed out, just to give our kids a decent Christmas.”

Yet Reynolds and others said they feel a commitment to their clients, who they know need their help and would likely end up in a more costly institutionalized setting if not for the support direct care workers provide.

Reynolds said a direct service provider workforce that’s underpaid and overworked is unfair to everyone involved.

“Especially the ones we help, the ones receiving the services,” she said. “They are the ones that deserve a well-rested and happy staff, not overworked and cranky staff who are burned out. These amazing wonderful souls deserve so much more than what they are given.”

The bill, L.D. 1573, sponsored by Rep. Jessica Fay, D-Raymond, is an effort to implement the recommendations of a January 2020 report by a state commission set up to study workforce issues in the state’s long-term care industry. The measure would require that reimbursement rates under the state’s Medicaid system, MaineCare, be at least 125 percent of the state’s minimum wage – or $15.19 an hour.

“While the title of this bill and the name of the commission uses the term ‘long-term care,’ it has become clear that an essential caregiver’s work is more than just what we normally think of as long term-care,” said Fay, who served as the House chair of the commission. “Because assisting people with personal care like bathing, toileting, cooking and other activities of daily living requires similar skills across many populations and settings and not just in traditional long-term care, it makes sense to think of the work in broader terms.”

Similar legislation was proposed during the last lawmaking session in 2020, but the bill never made it to final votes because the Legislature adjourned abruptly when the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The price tag on that bill, which included a minimum $2 per hour rate increase, was $69 million a year, with $26 million of that paid for with state funds and $43 million with federal funds. More than 33,000 people in Maine work as direct care workers, according to the commission’s report.

Fay said the legislation also addresses the issue of pay equity, as a disproportionate number of women and people of color work as direct care providers.

“Essential caregiving was historically the unpaid purview of women, people of color and immigrants and continues to be undervalued by some and underpaid,” Fay said. “People who require the kind of care that is provided by this workforce have also traditionally been those who aren’t always visible.

“Older people, people with intellectual, developmental or physical disabilities and folks with mental health issues are often not considered or are considered a burden,” she said. “When we have undervalued workers caring for undervalued members of society, we have a system that works for neither.”

Fay’s bill, which includes an ongoing commission to advise the Legislature and the Department of Health and Human Services on direct care workforce issues, attracted bipartisan support.

Sen. Lisa Keim, R-East Dixfield, joined Fay in speaking in support of the bill during a news conference before the public hearing Monday. Keim has sponsored similar legislation that would raise the rates for direct care workers by $2 hour. She said she’s heard from people all over her Senate district in northern Oxford and parts of Androscoggin counties who back better pay in the direct care field.

“Really, tens of thousands of Mainers rely on someone else every single day to do the most basic things for them, like wound care or helping them shower or use the toilet or eat or monitor their health,” Keim said.

At least six different bills going through the legislative process seek to improve wages for a wide variety of direct care workers, including measures that would allow qualified family members to be reimbursed for the care they provide to their loved ones living at home.

The committee will debate and vote on the bills, possibly consolidating their proposals into a single measure, before making recommendations to the full Legislature.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.