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Some 7,000 direct care workers contracted by the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority will be getting a small raise early next year.

According to Tom Watkins, executive director of the authority, the raise was approved by the authority’s board and will be paid for by some $21.5 million the authority freed up by finding operating efficiencies. The authority has a budget of $700 million, mostly made up of federal Medicaid funds.

The raise will bring the average wage for these workers to about $10.50 an hour, Watkins said. The statewide average wage for direct care workers is only $9.52 an hour, according to an association study of workers, on behalf of the Partnership for Fair Caregiver Wages.

“It’s about fairness, equity and quality of care,” Watkins said.

Those 7,000 direct care workers assist anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 patients a year — patients who are vulnerable, Watkins said.

“They’re rolling people over, feeding and clothing them, changing diapers,” Watkins said. “And we pay them like they work in a fast-food restaurant.”

Competition from the fast food world is part of what prompted the raise, Watkins said. Though direct care workers require “a significant amount of training,” the difficulty of the work and the improving job market make turnover a problem and retention a priority.

According to Robert Stein, general counsel of the Michigan Assisted Living Association, the training required for direct care workers is “rather extensive,” including lessons on medications, CPR and first aid, infectious diseases, cultural competency, and how to interact with members of the public with a limited ability to speak English.

“This is a big issue,” Watkins said. “It’s the right thing, morally, to do — and you get what you pay for.”

Stein said the raises will help local health providers retain staff. The association represents about 1,000 members statewide, and at least 200 of those are in Wayne County, he said.

“I don’t think it’s due to a lack of empathy or a lack of appreciation” that wages for direct care workers are low, Stein said.

“We advocated for many years for money for wage hikes,” he said.

In Michigan’s most populous county, that wage hike has come. While the work will remain difficult, Stein said the raises could help the authority “avoid what was a looming crisis” of health care personnel. Statewide, turnover in the field is about 50 percent, Stein said, meaning providers have a virtual revolving door of new workers, who must be interviewed, hired and trained, only to leave when a better opportunity comes along.

Stein said that low wages for direct care workers are a byproduct of a mental health system in Michigan with many needs and few available dollars.

jdickson@detroitnews.com

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