Advocates for seniors: Wage boost needed for care workers as ‘age wave’ arrives

RAISE THE BAR ON RESIDENT CARE members call for wage increases and staffing improvements outside the Bannister Center for Rehabilitation and Health Care in Providence in 2019. / COURTESY RAISE 
RAISE THE BAR ON RESIDENT CARE members call for wage increases and staffing improvements outside the Bannister Center for Rehabilitation and Health Care in Providence in 2019. / COURTESY RAISE 

Rhode Island is facing an “age wave” that could overwhelm its long-term elder care system if wages are not increased to entice more workers to staff the state’s nursing homes and home care programs, according to a nonprofit advocacy group for seniors.

The Rhode Island Senior Agenda Coalition says a growing senior population combined with a worker shortage is a recipe for disaster, and advocates are seeking financial assistance from state government through Medicaid in order to boost pay.

Maureen Maigret, a long-term care consultant for the coalition, said the pandemic amplified a home care worker shortage. Since March, 46% of requests for senior home care service received by 34 providers have gone unfilled, the coalition said. Close to 200 people await service with 3,564 hours of needed care unfilled, and 76% have been waiting more than two months for care.

In some areas the situation is more severe, she said. Of 30 patient referrals through the state’s Medicaid program to Newport County in recent weeks, only five have been processed, including 46% with a dementia diagnosis.

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Maigret said Medicaid funding that would allow for wage increases is absent from Gov. Daniel J. McKee’s supplemental budget proposal for fiscal year 2022, but she said it’s desperately needed to address what she believes is a “dire crisis.”

“This is the worst I have seen it,” said Maigret, who has worked in the field since the 1980s. “Providers across the state’s system are challenged to find workers to fill vacancies.”

Maigret, a former legislator and director of the R.I. Department of Elderly Affairs, said home care providers have had to employ expensive contract workers, if they can find them, to serve as a workforce stopgap.

Bill Flynn, Rhode Island Senior Agenda Coalition executive director, noted that more than 900 workers in Rhode Island’s senior care industry make under $15 per hour.

During the Senior Agenda Coalition’s annual conference on Oct. 27, the group asked House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio to use some of the $1.1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds to increase workers’ salaries to $15 per hour this fiscal year, and bump it to $16 per hour in the fiscal 2023 budget.

The coalition said that during the conference Ruggerio agreed with funding a permanent solution, and not a one-time bonus, while Shekarchi balked at using the ARPA money for this use because the money won’t be around in coming years to maintain wage increases.

Meanwhile, Flynn said, McKee has not shown interest in addressing an immediate need for nursing home and home care workers.

When asked about Flynn’s comment, the governor’s office responded by pointing to its R.I. 2030 Plan, a working document the administration has assembled to outline investment in services to meet the demands of the aging population in Rhode Island.

Maigret said she was surprised that the 2030 plan did not include more attention to long-term senior care and its workforce issues. “We need to recognize that we have this growing older population,” she said.

“The system is breaking right now,” said Flynn, who noted that like with other sectors, workers are exiting the workforce.

According to a survey released on Nov. 17 by the Rhode Island Health Care Association and LeadingAge Rhode Island, which represents 77 nursing homes, there are 983 openings for certified nursing assistants in Rhode Island and 447 openings for registered nurses and licensed practical nurses.

Census numbers project that the state’s elder generation, 75 to 84 years old, will increase by 25.7% from 2020 to 2025, Flynn said. If that trend continues to 2030, the percentage of elders in need of senior care will be untenable.

“We need to stabilize the senior care workforce to address the age wave that is upon us,” Flynn said. “This is an ongoing issue, and the complexity doesn’t help. Whoever is the next governor, we are going to urge their support.”

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