Loretta Copeland, an 81-year-old woman who lives in Harlem, uses a wheelchair and depends on an aid to help her with daily tasks like cooking and bathing. But the shortage of home care workers in New York currently the worst in the country, made it difficult for her to get help. Although she understands why people don’t want to work for such low wages, she is afraid of ending up in a nursing home.
“I’ve worked all my life and now I can’t even get help. It bothers me,” Ms. Copeland noted in a recent interview. “I want to be able to enjoy the time I have left.”
By 2040, the population of American adults age 65 and older will nearly double, and that of adults age 85 and older is expected to quadruple over the same period. As our aging population grows, the need for home care increases. Yet in New York, as in much of the rest of the country, there are too few workers.
The thought of moving into a long-term care home comes with dread for many seniors. Indeed, research shows that a majority of Ms. Copeland’s peers want to age at home. In recent years, the devastating toll of the coronavirus pandemic on nursing homes, assisted living facilities and group homes has further underscored the need for more long-term care options. However, while home helpers are needed more than ever, these workers are fleeing the profession.
If President Biden’s Build Back Better plan is approved by Congress, he would set aside $150 billion to expand access to home care through the Medicaid program that supports home health care, helping to reduce poverty. backlog of people waiting to receive subsidized home care and improving provider salaries. In New York, aging adults and people with disabilities are among those mobilize to pay better.
A 2019 report found that about a quarter of all patients receiving home care in New York said they were unable to find workersand nearly 20 percent of home care stations was not filled due to lack of staff. Between 2021 and 2040, the State should have nearly a million home care job openingsand the rest of the country is not far behind. But despite a surplus of unfilled jobs, many are finding that they simply cannot afford to do this type of work.
State home care workers earn $13.20 an hour in most counties – less than fast food workers. A report by the New York State Consumer Directed Personal Assistance Association found that low pay and lack of basic benefits were motivating home care workers in the state away from business. Of those who remain in the labor market, a majority rely on public assistance.
Staffing shortages have long plagued the home care industry. But stagnating wages combined with an aging population of baby boomers and pandemic pressure are pushing the industry to the brink. To end the home care crisis and keep aging adults on waiting lists for home care out of nursing homes, home care workers must be paid a living wage.
A 2021 report from the City University of New York found that higher wages would reduce staff turnover and attract new workers, while generating new jobs and revenue for the state. In New York, where a majority of home care workers are women and people of colorhigher wages also offer the opportunity to invest in two historically underpaid labor forces.
Raising wages would be saving New York State more than $1 billion a year increasing tax revenue and removing home health aides from government assistance. Additionally, studies suggest that aging adults who often receive home care reduce their hospital costs – save state Medicaid dollars by keeping aging adults healthier and out of hospitals.
New York State sets the pay rate for the vast majority of home care workers. Fair compensation for home care, a bipartisan spending proposal that would include wage increases for homeworkers in the state budget, is currently under consideration. In the coming weeks, Governor Kathy Hochul will decide whether this will make it into the final state budget.
Investments in Medicaid home and community services were also the focus of last week’s Senate Committee on Aging hearing titled “An economy that cares.” Home care workers, and the individuals and families who depend on them, explained to senators why raising wages for home care workers should be a priority for state and federal lawmakers.
As states across the country grapple with rising health care costs and aging populations, New York’s proposal to increase home care wages could offer a model for how we can care for aging adults while making smart investments that will channel funding into the local economy.
Whether we are getting older, recovering from surgery, or living with a disability and need help with meal preparation, transportation to and from appointments and errands, most americans will need home care at some point. Let’s make sure, when the time comes, that the workforce is ready.
Ai-jen Poo is the director of the National Alliance of Domestic Workers. Ilana Berger is Co-Executive Director of the New York Caring Majority and New York Director of Hand-in-Hand: The Domestic Employers Network.
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