This week there has been a lot of talk in the media about the movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. While most of the attention was focused on fast food workers, advocates for direct care workers took the opportunity to highlight the negative impact that poor wages have upon caregivers and their residents. In a Wednesday article for McKnight’s, Matt Yarnell, the Executive Vice President of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, pointed out that nearly one in six of the state’s nursing home workers are paid so poorly that they are forced to seek public assistance through the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, Medicaid or both.
Yarnell wrote “If we are serious about providing the highest quality care for our residents, then we have to back our rhetoric with action. It means we have to provide living wages to caregivers to cut down on turnover, to not force caregivers to work excessive overtime and double shifts. It is about not forcing workers to have to look to the state for public assistance to provide for their families.”
Why are direct care workers so poorly paid? A common argument points to the low educational requirements necessary to work as a caregiver. Often this point of view comes from within the Long Term Care community itself.
It’s true that the technical skills of a caregiver can be taught relatively quickly. Things like the principles of basic hygiene, taking vitals, infection control practices and proper body mechanics are pretty straightforward and don’t require a lot of advanced study. However, while formal training serves to create a basic necessary skill set, the real education for a caregiver doesn’t begin until he or she starts working with residents and fellow coworkers. The art of caregiving is learned through a combination of practical experience and mentoring from other workers. For those open to it, this is a learning process that can last the duration of one’s caregiving career.
The real value of experienced caregivers cannot not be found in their technical skills – or in anything that formal education could provide. Rather, it is in their capacity to perform well under difficult – often unreasonable – circumstances without losing their basic sense of humanity. It can be found in their ability to engage residents on an emotional level while under the duress of constant time restraints. It can be found in their willingness to support and sometimes lead their fellow coworkers in an environment that lacks adequate formal supervision. It can be found in their desire to serve as an example of how one human being should treat another without regard to roles or circumstance.
Good caregivers have a monetary value to the Long Term Care industry beyond what their technical skills and education can provide. The industry could not exist in its present form without their effort and caring. CNAs are truly the backbone of LTC. And their heavy lifting does not always involve transferring a resident.
The real reasons why caregivers are so underpaid are rather complex and go beyond educational requirements or even greedy nursing home operators. It is a very real social problem with direct implications to the well-being of our elderly and disabled citizens and should be treated as such.