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Aging baby boomers face a shortage of caregivers

WASHINGTON – Carolyn Gay, a certified nursing assistant of 20 years, says she wants to inspire teens to become caregivers to the elderly.

“I’m getting older, and in another 10 years I’m going to need one of these girls to look after me,” said Gay, 72, a Polk County, Fla., resident who speaks at area high-school career days. But it’s not always an easy choice to advocate, she said. “It’s embarrassing to explain why the wages for this job are so low.”

Well-prepared helpers for seniors and disabled Americans soon could be harder to find. The current work force is aging, and low pay may make the career unattractive to entrants, said Catherine Ruckelshaus, legal co-director of the National Employment Law Project, which focuses on low-wage workers. Immigration changes that could alleviate future shortages are stalled in Congress. And while state rules exist, there are no federal training standards for personal-care aides.

Need is escalating: By 2020 the U.S. will require 1.6 million more direct-care workers than in 2010, based on an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by the New York- based Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute. That’s a 48 percent increase for nursing, home-health and personal-care aides over the decade.

“If people want their parents and grandparents to be able to be cared for at home, and they want that opportunity themselves, we need to make this job a competitive job in the marketplace,” said Steven Edelstein, national policy director at PHI, a nonprofit that provides consulting services and workforce development for home health-care workers and groups. “If we care about the quality of the services, we need to care about the training of the work force.”

The challenge is to make caregiving attractive as a profession while still providing affordable care, as responses to a Labor Department rule issued last week showed. Minimum-wage and overtime protections will be extended to most in-home care workers, Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez said.

The change will apply parts of the Fair Labor Standards Act to many who aid the elderly and disabled in their homes. That work force is 90 percent female and 56 percent minority, according to an analysis by the Washington-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

On average, home-health aides make $10.49 an hour, nursing assistants earn $12.32 and personal-care aides are paid about $10, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates.

While workers usually earn more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, when they serve multiple clients their travel time often isn’t compensated and those extra hours could take them below that level, Edelstein said, adding this stands to change with the new rule.

Regulations often take effect 60 days after being issued. This rule is delayed until Jan. 1, 2015, to give families that use home-care workers and state Medicaid programs time to prepare, according to Laura Fortman, principal deputy administrator for the Labor department’s wage and hour division.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Republican Representatives John Kline of Minnesota and Tim Walberg of Michigan are among those who say the change could make home help too expensive.

“While the delivery of care has changed in recent years, the crucial need for affordable in-home companion care has not,” the lawmakers said in a Sept. 17 press release. “Faced with higher costs, some individuals will have no choice but to leave their homes and enter institutional living.”

About 75 percent of home-care services are paid for with public dollars, PHI estimated based on U.S. Census Bureau data from 2010.

A semi-private room in a nursing home costs about $6,235 per month, based on 2010 data compiled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, or about $75,000 annually.

In-home health aides cost $21 an hour on average, based on the data. That means a 40-hour week of care would cost $840, and a year about $44,000. Round-the-clock care, however, would be more expensive.

The new overtime-pay requirement could hurt home-care businesses, since many clients require more than 40 hours worth of care, said Jay Perron, vice president of government affairs and public policy at the Washington-based International Franchise Association.

If companies rotate caregivers to avoid paying time-and-a- half overtime, it could interrupt continuity of care, said Perron, whose group’s members include Interim HealthCare, a care, hospice and medical-staffing company, among other home-care franchises.

Such businesses usually make about a 5 percent to 7 percent profit margin after insurance, background checks and other costs, Perron said, and so have limited room to pay higher wages.

“Home-care companies will have little choice but to employ workers part time rather than full time as Medicaid payment rates and consumers with limited incomes cannot afford higher costs,” said Andrea Devoti, chairman of the National Association for Home Care & Hospice, a Washington-based nonprofit.

At the same time, the overtime rule could protect caretakers from being overworked, and having national requirements may improve industry oversight, Ruckelshaus said. Fifteen states provide both wage and hour protections to direct-care workers and an additional six and Washington D.C. require minimum wage, yet she said many lack resources for enforcement.