Help for those who help

Budget: About 3,000 personal-care workers hope their first raise in years is only the start.

General Assembly

April 13, 2005|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

Edwina Murray has been a personal-care worker for nearly two decades, tending to clients who can't care for themselves - grooming their hair, nails and feet, cooking for them and doing their laundry - all for about $5 an hour.

Now, with a provision in the state budget that received final approval this week, Murray and some 3,000 other personal-care workers who contract with the state will see their first pay increase in 19 years. Workers and their advocates called the 10 percent pay raise a good start, but hope that more can be done.

"I think it's good that we did get a raise, but I still don't think that it's enough," Murray said.

In addition to the pay raises, a bill was passed to create an advisory committee to oversee personal-care issues. The committee's duties include developing training and wage standards for the workers and establishing a referral system and registry to help clients find home care providers.

"This is a big issue," said Del. James W. Hubbard, a Prince George's Democrat who sponsored the bill. "For the most part, these people don't make more than $40 a day and ... they're expected to do a lot of things and people depend on them."

Hubbard said the committee will present reports each year to the governor and the legislature, so they can consider the workers for raises and figure out how personal-care clients will be best served.

Taxpayers will spend $2 million to cover pay increases for the workers, who are part of a Medicaid program created more than 20 years ago to give elderly and disabled people long-term care in their homes.

About a third of the 3,000 workers in the program work in Baltimore.

The workers contract with the state, rather than being government employees, so they do not receive workers compensation, unemployment insurance, sick leave, paid vacations or health insurance, according to worker advocates.

As contract employees who are paid by the visit, they are not subject to minimum wage requirements.

`Overdue recognition'

"The governor believed that our personal-care workers deserve a long-overdue recognition for their work to help our elderly, even in a tough budget year," said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

The workers currently earn $10 for a visit with a client who requires minimal care and usually lasts about two hours; $20 for a client who needs a bit more care, typically about a four-hour visit; and $50 for a client who needs live-in help, or a 24-hour visit.

With the new increases, pay for the $10 visit will go up to $11, and most of the $20 visits will go up to $22 (about 5 percent of them would go up to $30). Pay for the $50 visits will not change.

"Frankly it's just a start, and it's a relatively small increase given where they're coming from," said S. Anthony McCann, secretary of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

McCann, named secretary of the department in May, said he did not know why it has taken so long to get raises for the workers. In the past, department officials have said workers were squeezed between an underfunded Medicaid program and their minimal status as contract workers.

Murray, the personal-care worker, earns $40 a day between her two $10 clients and one $20 client, she said. With the raises, her pay will go up to $44 a day. In addition to her personal-care job, Murray sells jewelry to make ends meet.

She said the increase, though small, will help her pay the bills and better care for her clients.

Because they are not state workers, the employees are not members of a union. But the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, and the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, have been lobbying on their behalf.

Justin Molito, lead organizer for AFSCME Maryland, said the pay increases came after a year of rallies, marches, letters to Ehrlich and meetings with elected officials to help raise the issue of personal care providers.

"For some of the workers, this means that they're going to have enough money to pay some of their bills," he said.

`A bright spotlight'

Jamie Kendrick, executive director of the Maryland/DC state council for SEIU, said "a bright spotlight has been shown on the failings of this system and as a result of that, there were some substantive changes."

Tonya Jackson of Baltimore, who has been a personal-care worker since 1999, said the pay increase will go toward the bills at home, a family vacation and a treat for her client, such as a shopping trip.

Jackson earns $20 a day caring for a client. She cooks and cleans for her, takes her to the doctor, bathes her and does her hair. With the raise, Jackson's pay will rise to $22 a day - an increase she says is not enough but is better than nothing.

"Thank God for this," she said. "Can't complain, because they could have said no."

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