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Opinion | Michigan direct care workers, families headed for choppy waters

Many people are approaching the end of 2020 with a sense of relief and hope for a better new year. But for those Michigan families who care for someone with a mental illness or developmental disability, Jan. 1, 2021 is a day fraught with dread.

That’s the date Michigan’s budget will no longer provide its $2 hourly pay increase for the direct care workers these families rely upon. As a result, they may lose the help and support they need to manage their busy households, continue their employment and ensure the best possible help for their loved ones.

This past spring, state policymakers acted to support Michigan’s direct care workers with a $2 hourly wage increase, designed to be temporary in nature. These funds were necessary to support the 50,000 dedicated individuals who have been working to provide urgently-needed personal care, vocational training and emotional support across the state.

Recognizing the need that continues to exist—and the fact that our state’s direct care workers are woefully underpaid—the temporary increase was sustained through the end of this calendar year. More than $100 million in federal funds was matched by a generous $40 million in state appropriations to ensure ongoing direct care worker support.

These funds ultimately ensure the well-being of an estimated 100,000 Michiganders coping with mental illness and developmental disabilities. The work our state’s direct care workers do is arduous, important and noble, and their positive impact is widespread, with over one million Michiganders relying upon the support direct care workers provide. 

Yet, these invaluable workers are often paid less than the person taking your fast-food order.

Now, as these funds run out, many families will lose the help they urgently need. Direct care workers who have been able to make ends meet with this temporary increase will now experience a cut in pay and may have to seek out other, more lucrative employment.

This will exacerbate Michigan’s direct care worker shortage. Current turnover in the field already is a staggering 37 percent and growing. Meanwhile, demand for the services these workers provide has never been higher. The COVID-19 pandemic and all the stress and uncertainty it has produced has undoubtedly strained the collective mental health of Michiganders, and families throughout the state are struggling to deal with the fallout. 

Mental health is on the decline. Substance abuse is on the rise. And the workforce uniquely equipped to help us collectively manage these enormous challenges dwindles by the day. 

Direct care worker salaries are tied to state Medicaid funding, which, at present, are exceedingly low. Today’s workers currently receive, on average, a starting wage of $10.70 per hour, with many receiving minimal or no additional health or other benefits. When one considers that the average starting wage at a retail outlet or a fast-food restaurant is typically anywhere from $11 to $14 per hour, it’s clear to see that we can and must do better for Michigan’s direct care workforce. 

We have worked hard to ensure the strength of this essential segment of our economy. And we are grateful for the real, substantive action our state’s leaders took to better support these amazing professionals who do so much for Michigan’s most vulnerable residents during 2020. 

But more action is needed. As Michigan enters another COVID-restricted period of time, it’s essential that we reinforce and protect the people who are protecting so many of our state’s families. 

Direct care workers have earned every penny of their temporary wage increase and taking it away would be devastating. The enormous burdens placed on direct care workers aren’t going anywhere, and their wages should continue to reflect the extraordinary responsibility they bear. 

We urge state policy leaders to act before the end of the year to continue the funding needed to extend the $2 per hour as a permanent increase through 2021 to ensure the well-being of everyone.

Robert Stein is general counsel of the Michigan Assisted Living Association, Todd Culver is CEO of Incompass Michigan and Robert White is a parent advocate


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