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Caregiver pay again up for discussion at Capitol

Free Press - 1/11/2019

Jan. 10--MANKATO -- If Rep. Jack Considine has his way, home health aides and caregivers who work with the elderly and disabled will get a big raise.

Considine is among several lawmakers who plan to lobby for caregiver wage increases at the Legislature this year. The Mankato Democrat is filing a bill this week that would give caregivers their own state and federal reimbursement classification and raise their starting pay to $14 an hour.

"Frankly, I'm embarrassed we're not paying them more," Considine said.

Considine has sponsored several bills since 2016 to raise caregiver wages. Despite bipartisan support for wage increases, lawmakers have yet to give those bills or similar proposals much attention.

It's unclear how the state would pay for Considine's bill.

Caregivers and health care groups have pushed for wage increases for several years. They're paid based on state and federal human services reimbursement rates, which is why they lobby lawmakers to increase the rates. Yet the stagnant pay for difficult work has created an ongoing workforce shortage at a time when demand for caregivers is increasing.

Minnesota caregivers make $11.50 to $12.22 an hour on average, according to the Government Accountability Office. But rural caregivers typically make less than similar workers in the metro area. And longtime caregivers say the pay hasn't increased substantially in more than 20 years.

The Best Life Alliance, a coalition of caregiver groups around the state, secured a 5 percent wage increase from the state in 2013 and a 2 percent increase in 2009. Yet Minnesota caregivers also weathered a 7 percent cut in the state's Medicare waiver program to pay for various disability services, which went into effect last year.

Lawmakers agreed on a bill to offset that 7 percent cut during the 2018 legislative session, but it was ultimately attached to a $1 billion supplemental budget bill then-Gov. Mark Dayton ultimately vetoed after his office objected to dozens of other proposals packed into the bill. House and Senate leaders say a similar bill should pass through the Legislature early this session.

The Best Life Alliance and the Association of Residential Resources in Minnesota (ARRM), which represents caregivers working with people with disabilities, hope to secure even more money for caregivers this session. Advocates say they support Considine's bill, but they have also submitted legislation that would call for 2-percent wage increases over a five-year period.

That money would cover a gap between caregivers and workers in other, comparable industries, according to a recent state fiscal analysis. The bill, which is sponsored by several Republicans in the Senate and more than 20 lawmakers from both parties in the House, would also require more statistics and waiver rates to be assessed every two years, down from every five years.

That data could help the state adjust wage rates and stem Minnesota's increasing workforce shortage. The Best Life Alliance estimated several years ago Minnesota had more than 8,700 caregiver job openings. ARRM, which represents about half of the Best Life Alliance's caregiver and provider businesses, estimate more than 10,000 current job openings among their membership alone.

Advocates say the workforce shortage is already affecting disability services in Minnesota.

An annual report by United Cerebral Palsy was underwritten this year by a national caregiver organization, the American Network of Community Options and Resources. That report, released this week found Minnesota slipped from 14th to 21st among all 50 states when it comes to providing services to people with intellectual or physical disabilities.

That drop is slightly attributed to some changes in the report's methodology, but researchers found Minnesota is struggling when it comes to people with developmental disabilities receiving Medicare services and the number of residents with disabilities who have jobs. In addition, Minnesota's caregiver programs would have to grow by an average of 10 percent to accommodate residents on waiting lists for services.

Advocates say Minnesota's services haven't decreased compared to previous years, but its residents' needs are growing.

"We've got this situation where supports continue to be very good, but as the workforce shortage gets worse, there are fewer and fewer workers to offer access to these services," said Drew Henry, spokesman for ARRM.

Even local residents are impacted by the ongoing workforce shortage. MBW Company of New Ulm, which works to support residents with disabilities, has a staff of about 250 people with about 40 job openings, mostly on weekends. CEO Ric Nelson said the ongoing wage concerns make it difficult to keep staff when they can find better wages at fast food restaurants.

"It's not a good scenario or situation," he said. "People with disabilities are suffering the consequence."

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(c)2019 The Free Press (Mankato, Minn.)

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