Maine is one of three states being highlighted Tuesday by the White House for using pandemic relief funds to benefit direct care workers – the people who provide in-home and community-based care for vulnerable populations. Part of the relief money was used to pay workers bonuses that averaged nearly $3,500, helping to boost an industry with historically chronic workforce shortages, state officials said.

The services range from support staff for group homes that house people with intellectual disabilities, in-home assistance for seniors, residential treatment programs for those with mental health conditions, and other types of caretaking for those with significant health and substance use disorder conditions.

The Mills administration says the strategy is helping to ease shortages. The direct care workforce has increased from 20,295 workers in March 2022, shortly after the bonuses started being distributed, to 24,499 workers by the end of 2022, a 21% increase, according to a survey of the nonprofit agencies that hire the workers.

The White House is hosting a virtual event on Tuesday with Maine Gov. Janet Mills, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis. All are Democrats.

Nationwide, states have spent $37 billion on various home- and community-based services, the Biden administration said.

Joining the governors and senator will be Gene Sperling, a senior adviser to the White House and coordinator of the pandemic relief funds, Xavier Becerra, U.S. secretary of health and human services, and other federal officials.


Sperling, in an interview on Monday, said Maine is being spotlighted for using $241 million in pandemic relief funds under the American Rescue Plan to benefit direct care workers – including bonuses that averaged $3,429 per worker – with the aim of helping to recruit and retain workers during a workforce shortage. The bonuses cost the state $121 million. The remaining $120 million is being used for a variety of efforts to support workers, such as training, White House and state officials said.

Sperling said despite Maine’s efforts, the Biden administration understands that more needs to be done to keep workers doing oftentimes difficult jobs. The Biden administration will be seeking additional funds to help boost the workforce.

“This is an important down payment, but it’s still a down payment. It’s not enough,” Sperling said. “Still, it’s important progress. These are all important steps in the right direction.”

Sperling said if investments in the direct care workforce don’t continue, workers will see that the boost in wages, benefits and bonuses will stop, and will leave the workforce, reversing recent gains.

In most cases, nonprofit agencies receive a blend of federal and state money to pay for the direct care workers, often under the Medicaid program. And when reimbursement levels to the agencies are not high enough, it restricts how much the agencies can afford to pay the workers. In addition to the pandemic relief spending, the Mills administration increased Medicaid reimbursement levels so that direct care workers would be paid at least 125% of the minimum wage. The minimum wage will be $14.15 starting on Jan. 1, so in 2024 direct care workers will be paid a minimum of $17.70.

This year, average wages ranged from $17.05 to $20.39, depending on what type of direct care work was being done, according to Maine Department of Health and Human Services statistics.


Mills, in a statement to the Press Herald, said, “President Biden’s American Rescue Plan came at a critical time for Maine, allowing us to support our home and community-based care workers and to strengthen our health care workforce in Maine.”

Colorado and Pennsylvania also used pandemic relief funds to boost the direct care workforce, including wage increases and money for training.

Malory Shaughnessy, executive director of the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services, said that the bonuses and pay hikes are helpful, but it’s still extremely difficult to attract and retain workers.

“It was definitely helpful, but while 125% (of minimum wage) is great, you can make 150% at Starbucks,” Shaughnessy said. She said the direct care jobs are stressful and physically taxing compared to jobs that pay more.

Shaughnessy said in addition to working toward more boosts in pay and benefits, she would like to see the state start up loan repayment programs and provide higher education vouchers that could be used by the workers themselves or gifted to family members.

PHI, a New York-based advocacy group, ranked Maine fourth in the nation in 2023 for state policies that support direct care workers, second-highest in New England. Rhode Island was ranked second, and Washington state was ranked No. 1 for supporting direct care workers.

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. 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.

filed under: