We can solve the direct care worker crisis

By Sen. Marianne Moore

Signs of economic turnaround are everywhere.

Along with warmer weather, Mainers are enjoying other signs of spring, many of them with the words “Help Wanted” on them. Everywhere you look, businesses are seeking to fill “All Jobs, All Shifts” and with tourist season here, we are bound to see more of these.

Many Walmart workers can now earn at least $15 per hour, while Hobby Lobby has raised its own minimum wage to $17. Walgreens is offering sign-on bonuses as high as $20,000 for some new employees.

With the new federal bonus of $300 per week, an average unemployed worker can make as much as $15 per hour staying at home.

While a strong job market is a good sign for the economy, it is a difficult reality for agencies that provide critical caregivers to help developmentally disabled children and adults, among others.

Since the state recently raised the minimum wage by nearly $5 to more than $12 per hour, it has failed to increase the amount it pays these agencies to cover the higher cost. Now that most jobs pay much more than the minimum, they are not able to find workers or offer the extremely important services they provide.

Those who manage Maine’s nursing homes recently made it clear they are also in a dire state and for the same reason. Obligated to pay the higher minimum wage, but unable to do so because the state isn’t paying enough, they simply cannot find, hire and retain the needed staff.

The pandemic has been devastating to these facilities with residents amounting to nearly 60 percent of all COVID-related deaths in our state. Many stopped accepting new patients recently because they do not have enough staff to care for their residents.

Fortunately, all that is needed to remedy this situation is action by the Legislature. Unlike in years past, a shortage of funding is not a concern.

In February alone revenues to state government came in at nearly twice what was expected. For the current year, the state is on track to bring in a quarter billion dollars more in revenue than it needs, and this could improve further in these next three months.

Looking ahead, revenue is predicted to grow between 3.6 percent and 4.1 percent over each of the next three years. And then there is more than $1 billion in new federal money available to repay COVID-19 expenses.

All of this clearly shows that if state government cannot afford to invest in the care of its most vulnerable citizens now, it never will. 

Recently, the Health and Human Services Committee on which I serve held public hearing on several bills designed to remedy this problem. Numerous people from many parts of the state offered compelling testimony in favor of finding a solution.

Maine has badly neglected the care of its most vulnerable citizens for too long. With more than enough money in state coffers to live up to its obligations created by the mandatory minimum wage hike, now is the time to make this desperately needed commitment and ensure that this essential care reaches those most in need.

Republican Sen. Marianne Moore of Calais represents District 6 in the Maine State Senate.

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