Maine is running out of people to take care of its growing elderly population.
The state is anticipated to need 2,470 new direct care workers — people who provide long-term, hands-on care to seniors and people with disabilities — between 2014 and 2024. This comes at a time when nursing homes, home care agencies and other long-term care providers can’t even fill existing positions, let alone new ones that will inevitably open in the future.
Across the state there are currently about 600 certified nursing assistant vacancies at nursing homes alone, out of more than 3,000 CNAs employed at nursing homes, according to the Maine Health Care Association, a trade group representing most of Maine’s nursing homes.
The short-term solution to this workforce shortage is to give these workers a raise, as the BDN has argued.
But more will be needed to recruit and secure a compassionate, talented workforce of people to care for the state’s elderly and dying in the years to come.
Maine must figure out a way to transform these jobs — which often are seen as entry-level, dead end positions — into just the first step on the health care ladder for those who desire to advance. It’s not rocket science. The research and advocacy organization PHI, for example, has a number of resources and ideas on how this can be achieved.
Yet progress has lagged. Currently a direct care worker is likely to earn the same hourly wage during her first year of employment as during her 10th, according to PHI.
This is because there are few opportunities for advancement. “A big problem in the long-term care labor structure is there are few positions between entry-level aide position and the nursing level, which is at least a year, if not two or four, of college-level math and science,” Steven Dawson, founder and former president of PHI, told the BDN’s Maine Focus team for an article about a CNA in Bangor who can barely afford to live.
If passed, a bill that is under consideration by the Maine Legislature would be an important first step toward building advancement and training opportunities into these otherwise static jobs.
In addition to providing employers with more money to give direct care workers a raise, LD 1466 would set up a commission to study issues facing the state’s long-term care workforce. The commission would then recommend policies to support career ladders, identify education needs and propose new training opportunities for the state’s roughly 24,000 direct care workers, most of whom are women.
“What if we can’t find the workforce?” “What is it that’s going to happen if we don’t have these people to do the job and we don’t have the money?”
These were among the questions Rep. Patricia Hymanson, a Democrat from York and the chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, asked Jessica Maurer, the executive director of the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging, at a public hearing for LD 1466 on Monday.
Maurer’s response was simple and stark: “People will get injured or die, or they will leave their communities because there aren’t volunteer groups to help.”
If the Maine Legislature is serious about preventing unnecessary death, injury and dislocation — and if it believes that direct care workers matter — it will pass LD 1466 and work seriously to make these positions a launching pad for advancement into a growing health care industry.