2017-05-12 / Front Page

Service agencies struggle to keep staff

Providers hope legislation will improve worker wages
BY NATHAN STROUT
Times Record Staff

BRUNSWICK

Organizations such as the Independence Association, which works directly with adults with intellectual disabilities or autism, are having trouble keeping employees.

“Our turnover rate for our direct care staff is 38 percent,” said Executive Director Ray Nagel.

“Just in our group homes, we’re supposed to have 112 people — 112 full-time employees in that department — and we are 22 people short,” he said.

According to Nagel, the problem is that they simply can’t pay workers enough to keep them from moving on to easier, and often better paying, jobs. Next month, the nonprofit will increase its starting pay to $11 an hour in order to compete with a minimum wage that will jump to $10 an hour in January — but even that might not be enough.

“Money is not the reason I work in the field, but money may be a reason I have to move onto another job,” said John Lacharite, a direct support professional, in testimony to the Maine Legislature in April.

“You see, the average hourly wage for a DSP at Independence Association is approximately $11.53 per hour. Other agencies pay about the same rate,” he said. “When the local Cumberland Farms are advertising jobs beginning at $13.50 per hour you begin the rethink the level of importance the state of Maine has toward its most vulnerable population.”

The problem, according to Nagel, is that the MaineCare reimbursement rates for direct service professionals are lower than they were in 2007, even as workers demand higher wages.

Based largely on research commissioned from the Muskie School of Public Service, the Legislature established a MaineCare reimbursement rate of $25.37 in 2007 for the type of services organizations like the Independence Association provide. In practice, that worked out to about $10.37 toward workers’ wages.

“There’s never going to be an assessment or rate study that everyone is totally going to agree with,” said Nagel, but overall most thought it was fair.

Over the years, however, the Legislature has cut that reimbursement rate by 12 percent, down to $22.32, according to Nagel.

“What was originally described as payment to DSPs in the amount of $10.37, adjusted for what we’re being paid now, we should be paying DSPs $9.17 an hour — and that’s not accounting for inflation,” said Nagel.

Despite lower reimbursements, providers like the Independence Association have had to increase wages, paying for the difference themselves. The Independence Association has an average hourly wage of $11.68.

A bill currently before the Health and Human Services Committee could alleviate the problem by increasing MaineCare reimbursement rates.

Bill sponsor

Sponsored by House Majority Leader Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, the bill would simply return the reimbursement rate to the formula set in 2007, $25.37, and adjust for inflation. Nagel estimated that to be $29.58 an hour — an increase of about 33 percent — using Department of Labor numbers

“I’m proud my bill has strong bipartisan support, both in co-sponsors and within the full House and Senate,” said Herbig. “It’s hard to overstate its importance. Without this bill, more service providers will have to close their doors to Maine’s most vulnerable, including those with autism and developmental disabilities.”

“If the bill passed, I’m 1,000 percent certain that every penny that we could will be put toward the direct care staff ” either in salary or benefits, said Nagel. “It’s all about getting more to pay our direct care workers so that they can live, and they just can’t.”

DISCLAIMER: Reporter Nathan Strout’s spouse works at the Easterseals Maine Child Development Center. While she would not be affected by LD 967, the school receives similar MaineCare reimbursements.

nstrout@timesrecord.com

Reimbursement rate

BASED LARGELY on research commissioned from the Muskie School of Public Service, the Legislature established a MaineCare reimbursement rate of $25.37 in 2007 for the type of services organizations like the Independence Association provide. In practice, that worked out to about $10.37 toward workers’ wages.

OVER THE YEARS, however, the Legislature has cut that reimbursement rate by 12 percent, down to $22.32.

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