BY MICHELE MEYER SPECIAL TO THE PRESS HERALD
L.D. 1718 would award up to four $4,000 vouchers for college tuition to direct care workers who work at least 30 hours per week for four years.
I know from speaking to people in my district, and my legislative colleagues, that it’s nearly impossible to find a direct care worker to care for an older loved one, a person with disabilities or someone with behavioral health challenges. Previously labeled as “dead-end,” these jobs have traditionally been undervalued, disconnected from career ladders and ignored. While this workforce has been struggling for decades, when our overall labor shortage began to drive wages up in other sectors, workers previously in the field left for higher-paying, less demanding work, leaving far too many vulnerable people without care.
The Maine Legislature and state government have taken this problem seriously. Collectively, we have raised reimbursement rates, instituted cost-of-living adjustments, launched successful marketing campaigns, hosted job fairs, created career navigators, and offered sign-on and retention bonuses. Despite these robust efforts, Maine has only stabilized the care and support workforce, not grown it.
In fact, more than a third of older people who are supposed to get services through MaineCare Section 19 or 63 are getting no services or only partial services. That’s 1,179 older people who aren’t getting about 15,000 hours of care each week. Nursing homes are at 79% occupancy because of staffing shortages. Hundreds of older Mainers are “residing” at hospitals because they can’t be discharged to home or a facility.
Not surprisingly, we’re now hearing that traditionally employed people, mostly women, are leaving the workforce to take care of older relatives. According to a report just released by the Maine Center for Economic Policy, “The High Cost of Undervaluing Direct Care Work,” our failure to adequately pay direct care workers is keeping more than 8,000 people out of Maine’s labor force at a cost of over $1 billion per year.
There can be no doubt that we must continue to take action to attract workers to these jobs and to retain them in the field, and that we need to look beyond salary for incentives. L.D. 1718 can be a part of the solution.
This bill is inspired by the AmeriCorps service program, which successfully entices volunteers to donate a year of service in exchange for tuition credit. L.D. 1718 proposes to award a $4,000 voucher for college tuition to a direct care worker who works at least 30 hours per week for a year for a participating employer. The employee can earn up to four vouchers that can be used by the employee or her family, including grandchildren.
The idea is simple – if I can earn $17 an hour in fast food or retail, or earn the same as a home care worker, but I can earn college tuition doing the latter, I’ll choose that job and I’ll stay in that job over four years to earn all four vouchers. Once in the field, I might move up the career ladder or decide to stay in the job I’ve come to love.
This program incentivizes workers to try something they might not have tried, to gain experience working with people in settings they might not have considered. These skills will transfer to any health or behavioral health care jobs in the future, addressing some of our broader workforce challenges and increasing social mobility.
There is simple elegance in this solution. The bill appropriates $500,000 annually into a fund, accumulating over time to $8 million, where it will be maintained. It will attract and retain thousands of new workers into the field, some of whom will use the tuition credit to move into their chosen career, while others may work to create a legacy for a child or grandchild. With more workers, more people will get the care and support they need. And our higher education system will be infused with more revenue. L.D. 1718 is a rare opportunity to lift all boats – the first-of-its-kind legislation in the country. I urge my legislative colleagues to embrace this solution.