Low pay, stress: Personal care aides on the front lines

Jackson Forderer/The Free Press via AP Wylie Rollings does the dishes in the kitchen in a community room at the Harry Meyering Center in Mankato, Minn., as residents Michael Dreyer and Richard Anderson, right, mull about behind her.

By TIM KROHN Mankato Free Press, via AP

MANKATO, Minn. — Jon Burris doesn’t like to call the developmentally disabled folks he works with “clients.”

“I call them individuals. I don’t want to take away their identity.”

Burris has an easy, engaging manner as he talks with Nancy Hollerich, a 60-year-old resident at a Harry Meyering Center intermediate-care facility on Hoffman Road in Mankato.

His fondness for her is evident, even when she gives a blunt review when someone asks her if she likes the food served there.

Jackson Forderer/The Free Press via AP Richard Anderson, who goes by the nickname of The Governor, sits in his room at the Harry Meyering Center in Mankato, Minn. "I have everything in my room," said Anderson who was proud to show off his baseball prizes.

“Not really,” she says, as Burris breaks into laughter.

“You like going out to eat don’t you Nancy?”

“I like going out to lunch,” she answers.

Burris is a coordinator at the facility who schedules staff, fills out paperwork and, like all coordinators, also puts in shifts of direct care to residents each week.

The menu aside, Hollerich loves her home.

“The staff is all kind to me. They go outside and go out to lunch with me. We go on field trips. We just went to “Mamma Mia!” (at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres),” Hollerich told the Mankato Free Press. “We go to movies and fairs.”

Like most everyone, she’s getting cabin fever. “I have my own garden. I mostly plant tomatoes,” she said of the small plot outside the patio door.

The tomato patch reminds Hollerich of growing up on a farm near Good Thunder, a farm her brother runs. “I used to show sheep and chickens at the fair. You have to wash the chickens. They don’t like water too well,” she said with a chuckle.

It’s afternoon and Hollerich’s eyes are drooping as she’s stayed up past her normal nap time.

Allena Guerra, another personal care aide, comes in to help Hollerich get to her bed. Guerra waits while Hollerich maneuvers her electric wheelchair backward and then to her bedroom, one of two bedrooms in the unit, which features a small kitchenette, dining/living room, bathroom and small office with a computer where staff keeps records and notes on the resident.

Guerra patiently helps Hollerich get into bed with the aid of a lift, then gently lifts her legs, gets her comfortable and tucks her in.

Caitlin Bassett, another coordinator, stops in to visit with Hollerich and another resident in the unit.

She’s been with Harry Meyering for 18 years.

“I started as direct care staff. I started at $8 or $8.25 an hour. Now the starting wage is $12. It’s sad,” Bassett said.

“As crazy as it is, one of my kids was almost making as much as me at McDonald’s.”

She works a lot of overtime hours to help pay the bills and overtime is always available as staff turnover and shortages are always present in the personal aide industry. A lot of the staff routinely put in 60 hours a week. The varied hours of work also make it difficult for staff to pick up a second higher-paying part-time job somewhere else.

So why stay?

“The individuals is what keeps me here,” Bassett said. “And the people I work with, the staff, are great. But I’d love a little more money.”

Stress, low pay Linda Leiding, executive director of the Harry Meyering Center, said the problem of low pay is a constant battle.

“We’re working on bringing up the wages. The people we have who’ve been in their positions a long time, they’re at the $15-$16 range. We need to take care of all our employees,” Leiding said. “If you’re here and committed, we want to increase your pay because you’re a valuable employee.”

But raising pay is no simple matter as caregiver pay depends on state and federal insurance reimbursements.

Harry Meyering operates a number of residential facilities and provides other services for people with a wide range of developmental disabilities, some living semi-independently and some who need intensive care.

“Some people may need a little assistance in getting dressed, some need assistance in eating, some need reminders about making a lunch or taking medication. If people use a wheelchair, it’s helping them navigate and get in and out of a shower. It’s helping people live in the community.”

Leiding said Mankato is fortunate to have Minnesota State University, which offers a good supply of students looking for flexible part-time work.

Harry Meyering’s staff turnover rate last year was 53%. “People leave from a combination of pay and stress, or college students leave for a job in their career. And some realize they’re not cut out to do this and leave.”

Job a passion

The staff who stay in the industry all say they do it because of the people they help and staff they work with.

Burris said that as professional staff they aren’t really supposed to think of the residents as friends. But even so, “They become an extension of your family,” he said.

“I got a passion for working with people with developmental disabilities back in high school,” Burris said. “Kids in my class with disabilities, I hung out with them and talked with them.”

With a degree from South Central College in community service, he worked for a time in his hometown of New Ulm as a paraprofessional in the public schools, then did factory work for seven years.

“I wasn’t satisfied with that and decided I wanted to get back working directly with people.” He started at Harry Meyering in 2016.

The Homestead Road facility is home to 24 individuals, with the building divided into three sections with 24-hour staffing.

Some of the residents lived at other supportive living facilities and a few from independent living. Many residents who aren’t retired work at MRCI during the day.

“One guy here had owned his own house and another one lived in his own apartment,” Burris said. “They know they need more assistance, more reminders. And some need complete help doing everything.”

“The pay has always been an issue. I’ve known staff who left this field because they can go to a tanning salon and make $2 or $3 an hour more. When you think of that, it’s upsetting.

“When I started, it was just a little more than minimum wage. Now as a coordinator, I make a little more, but it’s difficult,” said Burris, who is a single dad.

“I’ve definitely thought about doing something else. Last year I was in a pretty tight spot financially, and I was thinking of going into some sort of trade so I’d have a better income. But it’s difficult to leave the field because you get so involved with the individuals. You want to stand beside them.”

Capitol watch

Again this legislative session, bills are aimed at increasing pay, including a proposal by Rep. Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato, who has long championed wage increases for home health aides, personal care attendants and other caregivers who work with the elderly and disabled.

Advocates gained some ground last year after a 7% cut to the state’s Medicaid program in 2018. Lawmakers agreed on increases to part of the state’s reimbursement formula as well as mandated studies on how caregiver wages compare to industries with similar work requirements.

Yet those increases don’t necessarily mean worker pay will increase by the same amount. Industry experts say the increase only affects the state’s competitive workforce factor, which is one of several factors that go into Minnesota’s complex insurance reimbursement formulas to fund care providers. And those changes only affected a portion of caregivers, meaning the slight increase wasn’t industrywide.

Considine was originally pushing a proposal to pay most personal care aides at least $15 an hour. That plan would have cost in excess of $200 million and lacked political support. Considine changed the bill to a $14 wage, which would cost about $168 million.

But Considine, who announced he is retiring after this session, said DFL majority leaders have had little interest in moving his bill along.

“There are several other bills. A lot of them are studies and long term they don’t bring relief for some time. These people can’t wait. It’s been too long,” he said.

Considine said that while there is plenty of support for the disability community, there are always other priorities that trump them when passing a state budget. “There are a lot of important things, education, police, a lot of good priorities, but we never get these people help. There’s only been two initiatives in the past 20 years that have gone forward. We’re always balancing the budget on the backs of the disability community.”

The persistent low pay comes as the demand for personal care attendants is growing. The state Department of Employment and Economic Development says a PCA is the fourth most in-demand job in Minnesota, and one that’s expected to be among the fastest-growing in the coming years — with an estimated 30,000 new jobs by 2026.

Jodi Sapp, program manager at Harry Meyering Center, said the political gridlock on pay is tiring.

Sapp started in the industry in 1992 and got small, regular cost-of-living increases of about 1%. But since the early 2000s, she’s had one raise. “It’s hard. I’m working on wages I was making eight years ago. I’m a homeowner and it’s hard to do things I should on my house.”

She has gone to lobbying days at the Capitol and said she hears support from Democrats and Republicans. “They say they understand, but then they say we can’t help you because the other party won’t let us. In my opinion (legislation dies) somewhere in the caucus room where the leadership decides what stays and what goes.”

Sapp said the tough job and low pay means she and others who have to staff buildings are constantly shorthanded. In a past job, she said, she had one residential building where there was 90% turnover in one year.

She thinks the fact that lawmakers know a certain number of people are so dedicated to what they do that they can ignore pay increases.

“I’m angry at both parties in St. Paul. They both say they want to help us out, but they don’t.”


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