Colleen Allen and Mark McWilliams: Why $2-an-hour wage boost for caregivers matters to other workforce sectors
For many Michigan families, mental illness and developmental disabilities are a fact of life.
Their daily activities include providing high levels of personal care for a loved one and, very often, they find they can’t do it all on their own.
That is where our state’s direct care workers come in.
These 50,000 individuals provide personal care, emotional support and vocational training to more than 100,000 of Michigan’s most vulnerable residents.
Their work makes it possible for family members to remain employed and contribute to the state’s economy while their family members receive the support they need.
Unfortunately, Michigan’s direct care workers are not compensated as well as they should be.
In fact, many of them make less than they could if they were serving fast food or restocking store shelves.
Our state’s direct care workers earn an average starting wage of $10.70 per hour. With retail outlets and fast-food restaurants paying starting wages between $11 and $14 per hour, on average, we can see there is an obvious gap.
Add in a lack of health care or other benefits to many direct care workers, and it’s easy to see why many leave the profession very quickly. Today, direct care worker turnover is 37 percent — and it’s increasing every day.
And there couldn’t be a worse time to be losing these workers. Many Michiganders are facing a higher level of mental stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors associated with the difficult year our state has experienced. We need more supports, not less.
That is why our state’s leaders acted to support direct care workers this past spring.
The governor and Legislature approved a $2 hourly wage increase to help retain and boost the availability of Michigan’s direct care workers, which went a long way toward helping these essential team members make ends meet. Even better, the state’s 2020-21 budget sustains this temporary increase through Dec. 31.
While that’s a positive action — and one for which we are immensely grateful — we are concerned about what will happen as 2020 comes to a close.
We are hopeful our state’s leaders will once again act to preserve this additional direct care worker support, so Michigan’s vulnerable residents and their families can continue to receive the support they need.
Our best hope lies in the passage of another major federal aid package. These additional funds are urgently needed — and sooner, rather than later — to support an extension of the $2 hourly wage increase for direct care workers.
The consequences of losing this temporary increase are immense. Families who lose their direct care workers will have to make alternative arrangements, which may include leaving the jobs they need.
Ultimately, these sorts of decisions will bring about significant local economic impact and cost the state much-needed tax revenues.
While the issues surrounding payment of direct care workers — and the strength of that particular talent pipeline — are going to require additional long-term thought and planning, there are short-term actions possible to ensure Michigan families aren’t teetering on the brink of their own financial cliffs.
We urge our state and federal policy leaders to keep this vulnerable population in mind as they develop their plans for the future.