More pay is needed for those who care for people with disabilities and elders. The Best Life Alliance, a coalition of more than 130 groups statewide, has launched its quest for $90 million from the 2016 Minnesota Legislature. Group supporters filled the State Office Building media room December 1 to make their case for an increase. They were joined by legislative allies, Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, and Rep. Matt Dean, RDellwood.
Best Life Alliance is the new name for The 5% Campaign, which has been a presence at the capitol in recent years. The money sought by the alliance would provider a five percent increase to home and community-based service providers. The group did get a five percent increase in 2014 but fell short during the 2015 session.
If state lawmakers pass an increase in 2016, it would take effect July 1.
The shortage of personal care attendants has reached a critical stage, according to Best Life Alliance members. More than 90,000 Minnesotans with disabilities and elders need care, but are all too often unable to find help.
Low pay and long hours mean jobs can be hard to fill. People who enjoy their work providing care must sometimes take two or three jobs to make ends meet. Pam Gonnella, campaign co-chairperson, said she recently called the home where her adult daughter Sarah lives. A staff member who was leaving cried when she told Gonnella how much she would miss the people she worked with. “But she was leaving due to the high staff turnover, difficult in filling work shifts, and continued low pay,” Gonnella said.
Caregiver Sam Subah also addressed the group. He has worked as a direct support professional since 1995. While Subah said he has been grateful for the work opportunities and for the people he has helped, the pay he and others received is lagging behind other types of work.
Subah said he struggles with balancing responsibility to those he works with to needing to provide for his own family. He currently works three jobs, putting in 60-80 hours a week. Subah said it’s a dilemma many other caregivers face.
“There were times that I felt like leaving and finding another job that pays more, but each time I came face to face with making that decision, I felt like I was walking away and leaving them more vulnerable than when I got there,” he said.
Gonnella and Subah spoke of how low wages can affect client care. Gonnella’s daughter Sarah was fortunate to have two long-term caregivers. But now high staff turnover has a negative impact on her care and the care of others in the home she lives in. Subah said a wage increase would not only lower the current rate of staff turnover, it would also make caregiving more attractive as a career choice and not as a steppingstone to better jobs.
“To me there is no better job than being a caregiver and helping someone to live their best life,” Subah
said. But being able to do that requires adequate compensation.
Dean and Eken said they are sympathetic to the caregivers’ needs. Dean, who chairs the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee, indicated that savings from some health care programs could be redirected to disability service programs.
Dean also noted the five percent increases nursing homes have received over the past two years, and the positive and stabilizing effect that has had on hiring. Some advocates present said that nursing home work has lured away some workers who provided home and community-based services.
“Home and community-based services were left behind last session,” Eken said. He said the state must stop the “hemorrhaging” of that workforce.
“This is a priority,” Eken said. “I really see this as the challenge of our times.”
Eken and Rep. Rod Hamilton R-Mountain Lake, are sponsors of the 2016 five percent legislation. Three-fifth of the increase would provider for worker pay raises, while the rest would be used to improve care. Eken added that he sees the five percent as a stopgap measure and that caregiver wages must not be allowed to continue to fall behind.
Those who support the five percent increase are encouraged by news of the state’s favorable financial condition. State finance officials December 3 projected the state’s budget surplus at almost $1.9 billion. While that is encouraging news for those seeking adequate support for programs, it also signals the potential for high-profile spending fights during the 2016 session. The 2015 session ended with almost $900 million left over when spending agreements couldn’t be reached.
The projected available surplus will actually be about $1.2 billion, after $665 million goes to budget reserve accounts and repayments. That is required by state law.