Minnesotans are caring people who want what is best for our families and neighbors. But a recent article on MinnPost highlighted how our state is facing a care crisis caused by lack of people willing to do health care work for the current low wages and benefits. The care crisis, as it is known, is a workforce shortage in the home care industry (over 8,000 current unfilled jobs because of the low wages) that means seniors and people with disabilities are facing increased challenges in finding quality caregivers. As someone who is directly impacted by this care crisis, I really hope this issue is one that our new governor and the state Legislature work to fix this year.
I’m 45 years old and have a genetic disease called spinal muscular atrophy. I’ve been in a wheelchair since I was 10. For the past 25 years I have worked as a mechanical engineer at Barry-Wehmiller Packaging Systems where I design packaging machinery. Over the years, my health has deteriorated to the point where today I am basically a quadriplegic with the exception of minimal use of my right hand. I cannot walk, feed, use the bathroom or dress myself without total assistance. I have four full-time home care workers, as well as my parents, who help where they can.
Very challenging for families
But my parents are in their 70s and caring for me has become very challenging for them and impossible for either to do individually. My mom has almost constant back pain due to years of caring for me. Without home care coverage one of my parents always has to be home to help me, which means that they can never go anywhere together. Several years ago, before I had full-time care, my dad’s mother was dying in Montana and my parents could not go there together because my mom had to stay home to help me.
Stories like mine are happening all over Minnesota. This dire situation is why home care workers formed a union a few years back. When they first began organizing, they were paid less than $8 per hour with no benefits or training. Over the last four years, they’ve won training and benefits like sick time and holiday pay for the first time ever, along with an increase of the minimum wage to $12. But that is far from enough to keep people doing this work.
Our society’s concern or indifference toward home care workers speaks volumes to the value we put on the lives of the parents, grandparents and the people with disabilities they care for.
Hard to recruit and retain caregivers
The low wages make it difficult to recruit and retain responsible, reliable caregivers. It reduces the quality of care I receive. This makes it very hard for me and other disabled and elderly Minnesotans to live dignified, productive, independent lives. That is why I am excited that the SEIU bargaining team of home care workers and clients negotiated a contract with the state that would increase funding across the board for care work, helping to raise the minimum wage to $13.25, boost time off and invest in training. Now it is up to our elected officials to fund and ratify this two-year contract.
$13.25 isn’t going to solve the care crisis, but it will help. Recruiting more quality caregivers would allow me to get to doctor’s appointments more easily and to more frequently attend sporting events, concerts, movies, dinner with friends or just run errands. Basically, it would allow me to do what most people do every day.
With advances in medicine, disabled and elderly Minnesotans are living longer lives, causing the workforce shortage to grow at an alarming rate. Without adequate pay and benefits, this shortage has become a crisis, leaving the disabled and elderly populations little choice but to move to more costly nursing homes or other similar facilities.
But we have a chance this year to take a step toward fixing this crisis.
At this critical moment in our state, our elected leaders have a chance to make sure this contract is funded and ratified so we can move toward a future where all Minnesotans — no exceptions – are able to live safe, happy and healthy lives. I urge them to make this happen.
Damon Leivestad is a mechanical engineer who lives in Plymouth.
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