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What It Costs When We Undervalue Direct Care Workers in Maine

By Jake McDonald (he/him) | May 8, 2023

Maine’s direct care workforce faces a growing crisis of poor pay and job quality that has led to a critical shortage of workers. All over the state, people who need care are not receiving it. The consequences of undervaluing workers who provide vital care for older adults, people with behavioral health challenges, and those with disabilities are far-reaching and alarming.

To fix this, Maine’s Essential Care & Support Workforce Partnership (including PHI) advocates for the state to make needed investments in Maine’s care economy. Recently, the partnership released a report, authored by the Maine Center for Economic Policy, summarizing the high costs of undervaluing direct care work. Here is what the report explains.

Why Direct Care Matters to All of Us

Most of us will need the support of direct care workers at some point in our lives, either for ourselves or for our loved ones. Access to stable, quality care is crucial for both those receiving services and their family caregivers, who often struggle to balance work and other priorities with the needs of their loved ones. Direct care workers allow working-age adults to remain employed and support their families, knowing their loved ones are in good hands.

The Economic Impact of Undervaluing Direct Care Work

The collective failure to adequately support direct care workers keeps more than 8,000 people out of Maine’s labor force. The state loses over $1 billion per year in additional economic activity because so many people are leaving their jobs when they cannot find a direct care worker for their loved one.

Undervaluing care work also imposes significant public costs on the state. Low wages lead more workers to rely on public assistance programs, such as MaineCare (Medicaid) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Moreover, the drop in labor force participation due to direct care responsibilities means fewer workers are contributing taxes. These factors combine to cost the state and federal budgets more than $70 million each year, according to this new report.

The Strain on Maine’s Health Care System

Direct care workforce shortages place undue strains on Maine’s health care system. For example, hospitals across Maine are unable to send many patients home or to community-based settings because there are not enough workers to care for the patients. According to the report, in March 2023, Maine Medical Center had about 50 people under its care who were approved for discharge but could not find an alternative care setting. Meanwhile, Northern Light Health noted that over a nearly six-month period, the cost of delayed discharges across the system’s hospitals totaled $13.6 million, amounting to approximately $63,000 per person.

Time for Meaningful Change

The costs of undervaluing direct care workers will only continue to rise if action is not taken. It is time to recognize the true value of direct care workers, address the far-reaching consequences of inaction, and commit to bringing about meaningful change. By doing so, we can ensure that direct care workers receive the compensation they deserve, employers can effectively recruit and retain staff, families can access the support they need, and the quality of life for those in need of care remains high.

This partnership is part of PHI’s Essential Jobs, Essential Care™ state-based advocacy initiative, which has also included Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and North Carolina. In each of these states, Essential Jobs, Essential Care is based on three main policy goals: improving compensation for direct care workers, driving workforce innovations (such as training and advanced roles), and strengthening workforce data collection. Read more here.

Jake McDonald (he/him)
About The Author

Jake McDonald (he/him)

Senior State Policy Advocacy Specialist
As the Senior State Policy Advocacy Specialist, Jake McDonald improves job quality for direct care workers by deepening and expanding PHI’s state-based advocacy approach.

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