When the pandemic hit, there was a word to describe the people who care for those who can’t care for themselves: The word was “essential.”

But when it comes time to pay these essential workers, the pay offered is no more than someone could make in a far less stressful job, serving fast food or stocking shelves in a supermarket.

There’s also a word for trying to fill these important jobs at rock-bottom wages: It’s “impossible.”

The Legislature has a chance to do something about it this year. L.D. 1573 would guarantee that direct care workers would make no less than 25 percent more than the minimum wage, which is currently $12 an hour and annually adjusted for inflation. Passage of this bill would make the lowest wage for a direct care worker $15 per hour, which won’t erase the workforce shortage all by itself, but should at least make these jobs more competitive in a tight labor market.

Last week, Maine lawmakers heard from family members and care providers, who laid out the consequences of a stressed system that cannot recruit or retain enough people to meet the need.

A lack of workers can mean that people who could stay in their own homes with some help getting out of bed or changing their clothes end up being hospitalized or admitted to nursing homes.

It means residents of nursing homes have to cope with disorienting staff turnover, receiving care from a revolving cast of temporary agency employees and regular staff working overtime.

And it means family members working around the clock to provide unpaid care even when their loved one qualifies for a state or federal program. The labor shortage has the perverse effect of keeping people out of the workforce, because they need to stay home and take care of a family member.

In one heartbreaking story shared with the committee last week, a father described the steps his family went through to qualify for in-home assistance as his 20-year-old son with a severe disability transitions from child to adult services.

The family got the necessary waiver from the state and identified an agency to provide the service. But weeks after the job was advertised, no one has applied for it.

The pay increase is just one recommendation put forward by a study commission created by the Legislature in 2019. Its report, issued last year, also calls for the state to engage in recruitment, training and English language education that would help qualify people to fill the open positions.

But these kinds of efforts will not succeed unless these demanding and essential jobs have at least a slight edge over the lowest-wage jobs in our economy.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services was represented on the commission, but it does not endorse the wage increase. In written testimony, Michelle Probert, director of MaineCare services for the DHHS, points out that direct care workers received a pay increase last year, and Maine’s rates compare favorably with the pay level for similar work by Medicaid agencies in other states.

But that misses the point. Maine’s home care agencies and nursing homes aren’t competing with organizations in Vermont or New Hampshire for workers. They are competing with McDonald’s and Shaws supermarkets just down the road.

Lawmakers should follow the lead of the Health and Human Services Committee, which voted in favor of the bill last week. The state was right to classify direct care work as essential, and their pay should reflect that.


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