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Direct-care workers, at risk during COVID-19, need raise, benefits, groups say
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Direct-care workers, at risk during COVID-19, need raise, benefits, groups say

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Erika and Teddy in hallway

Teddy Montiel, right, a direct-care worker with ICW Inc., helps Erika Pugh with job training and coaching, as well as getting dressed, eating, going to the bathroom and other daily activities. Pugh, 21, has a developmental disability and sensory issues that make her unable to wear a face mask.

Nearly half of Wisconsin’s 100,000 direct-care workers — who help older adults and people with disabilities do daily activities — work a second job to support themselves and a quarter are uninsured or on BadgerCare, according to a new survey highlighting the workers’ struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Groups behind the survey on Wednesday asked the state Legislature to implement recommendations in September from the Governor’s Task Force on Caregiving, which include 8% rate increases the next two years to increase wages to $15 an hour and possibly provide benefits such as paid time off and health insurance. The median hourly wage is now $12.73, they said.

Another proposal is a three-tier training system to help direct care workers become certified nursing assistants, if desired, in part by giving them credit for hours worked.

“Direct-care workers have been true heroes during (the) COVID-19 pandemic,” said Todd Costello of the Wisconsin Personal Services Association, who has said it’s hard for direct-care employers to compete with workplaces such as Kwik Trip and Walmart.

“They continue to go into people’s homes, day after day, to support them with bathing, dressing, meals, all while putting their own health and their family’s health at risk. They deserve better pay and benefits.”

Teddy and Erika at table

Teddy Montiel helps Erika Pugh with job training and coaching. Pugh works with Adam Can Recycling, helping businesses with recycling initiatives.

“When people doing the essential work of caring for others cannot afford to pay for food or utilities it is time to do something,” said Sarah Bass of the Wisconsin Long Term Care Workforce Alliance.

The groups, along with InControl Wisconsin and the Survival Coalition of Wisconsin Disability Organizations, surveyed 300 direct-care workers from rural and urban parts of the state this fall. Among respondents, 76% said they have considered leaving the profession for a higher-paying job or one that provides benefits, but 60% are “likely” or “very likely” to remain if the job led to additional certifications, such as CNA.

The results show the workforce, estimated at 103,000 people, to be “on the brink of collapse” as many workers put themselves at risk for coronavirus infection by continuing to enter people’s homes to provide services, the groups said in a statement. “They are truly on the front lines of this pandemic as best practice is for COVID-19 patients who do not require hospitalization to self-quarantine at home,” the groups said.

The workers help people get dressed, eat meals, bathe, take medications and participate in daily life. Direct support jobs include personal care, home health, supportive home care, respite, job coaching and day services.

Teddy close up

Teddy Montiel is among about 100,000 direct-care workers in Wisconsin who help older adults and people with disabilities with activities of daily living.

Stacy Ellingen, 35, of Oshkosh, told reporters Wednesday she depends on direct-care workers to survive and live in her own apartment. She has cerebral palsy.

“I’ve had many, many horror stories about going without care. I’ve slept in my chair on multiple occasions when I couldn’t find workers to help me get in bed. I’ve skipped many meals and gone without using the restroom due to not being able to find workers,” Ellingen said. “It’s incredibly sad that people can make more money flipping burgers at McDonald’s or stocking shelves at Walmart than they are able to make taking care of people.”

Tom Cooney, a direct-care worker in Madison, struggled to find health insurance when he decided to keep working with a client with a disability who was no longer with Cooney’s agency. The client’s mother helped him get a raise and insurance, but it was complicated, he said.

“The pay really needs to go up to attract workers,” Cooney said.

Erika and Teddy by car

Direct-care workers such as Teddy Montiel, shown with client Erika Pugh, make about $13 an hour on average, often without health benefits, according to groups representing the workers.

According to PHI, a national research and policy organization focused on the direct support workforce, 81% of Wisconsin direct support workers are women and 30% are people of color.

Other recommendations from the Governor’s Task Force on Caregiving the groups highlighted Wednesday include disregarding $10,000 in annual earnings in qualifying for Medicaid food and child care benefits to allow workers to put in more hours and not lose benefits.

Another would continue the Family Care Direct Care Worker Fund, which provides bonuses to direct care workers.

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