Elderly caregivers deserve a living wage

Marge Robinson

George Bernard Shaw once quipped that “youth is wasted on the young.” Hubert Humphrey is credited with noting that the moral test of a government is how it treats those in the twilight of life, the elderly.

Of Michigan’s nearly 10 million residents, some 34 percent are over the age of 50, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And the state’s 60-and-older set is growing faster than the rest of the population.

That means that many of you reading this may have already had some interaction with a nursing home, or it is on the horizon. It means that those charged with taking care of our most vulnerable will continue to be in greater demand.

Yet as the population ages, we continue to struggle with ensuring the best treatment of those individuals, particularly when it comes to those providing care. And that needs to change.

It’s predicted that by 2030, the U.S. will need 3.5 million more workers in elder care, according to a study by the Institute of Medicine. A job void in Michigan could be a welcomed gap to fill as the state continues to work toward diversifying its economy.

But how do you grow an industry when its current workers are struggling to survive, making the job less appealing, leading to an industry with chronic high turnover?

The work at a nursing home ranges from bathing to clothing to feeding our seniors, many of whom are limited in their movement or who are hindered by waning faculties. Often, when a family member isn’t around to offer assistance, workers may serve as counselor, spirit-lifter, birthday-acknowledger, and more.

Such caregiving should be rewarded adequately, but instead the pay is so low that workers often have to rely on public assistance. A Carsey Institute study found that nursing aides earn on average just $9.13 an hour, and some 25 percent lacked health insurance. Some workers even wind up paying expenses for items such as toiletries out-of-pocket.

These workers deserve more, in the same way we want the best for our parents and grandparents in their time of need. It’s time to pay a living wage—$15 an hour—to those who take care of our seniors, so that those workers have a better chance of taking care of themselves.

Someday, it will be us in our twilight. And we’ll want someone to be there for us.

Marge Robinson is president of SEIU Healthcare Michigan.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.