Long-term care workers: Overworked and underpaid

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The workers who care for some of the state’s most vulnerable people are leaving the profession in droves – and Governor Tim Pawlenty’s proposed budget cuts will only make it worse.

Representatives of both labor and management conveyed that message to state lawmakers at a hearing Thursday on Pawlenty’s plan to slash $187 million from health and human services and take $250 million from the Health Care Access Fund. The governor includes no money for long-term care facilities – meaning no wage increases for workers.

Donna Kalis, an LPN at Lutheran Care Center in Little Falls, spoke about the conditions facing LPNs, nursing aides, food service workers and others in long-term care facilities. Residents include not only the very frail and elderly, but also people with Alzheimer’s disease, chemical dependency problems, alcoholism and mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, she said.

While the resident population has become more complex and more challenging, staffing has not kept up. Neither has pay. In recent years, workers have seen wage freezes or tiny increases of nickels an hour.

As a result, most workers are leaving for better-paying jobs – and they don’t have to look far, said Kalis, who also is president of United Steelworkers Local 9230, which represents workers at the Lutheran Care Center.

“They can go to Burger King or Wal-Mart and make more money,” she told the members of the Senate Health and Human Services Budget Division.

“The staffing shortage will only skyrocket faster than gas prices with the current budget proposal that includes no money for nursing homes,” she said.

Her comments were echoed by Grace Petri, an AARP member from Virginia, Minn.

“I’m very concerned about what this proposal will do to nursing homes and the staff who care for our loved ones,” Petri said. “Consistent staff is best for everyone, but we cannot keep consistent staff if we do not pay enough.”

Mark Peterson, CEO of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, which operates several long-term care facilities, said, “Frankly, I worry that our ability to assure quality care and safety of vulnerable Minnesotans is compromised.”

Caregivers put in 12 to 16 hour days and are getting burned out, Kalis told lawmakers. At the same time, they struggle to maintain quality care.

“Our residents suffer the most,” she said. “I ask of you – how unfair is this? Do they not deserve the best of care? Where is the quality of life?

“The state not providing any money for nursing homes – is this a form of neglect by our governor?”

At the hearing, a number of people urged lawmakers to raise revenues to maintain public services. The Legislature is conducting several public hearings as it formulates a response to Pawlenty’s proposal.

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