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Group homes say worker shortage 'a crisis,' hope for help from legislature

Many agencies that run group homes in Maine are finding it difficult to hire new workers because of low starting wages.

MATFEN, Newcastle — Cheryl Maloney left her job in child care two years ago and became a direct support professional at a group home in Newcastle.

“I like to support the clients,” Maloney said. 

Her fellow support professional Emily Huber agrees.

“Something about the clients—you really get to know them, and it's just a big eye-opener and makes you a better person,” Huber said.

But the people who operate hundreds of group homes for adults with intellectual disabilities say they are at a crisis point because homes are losing staff and can’t find people to replace them.

Agencies like Mobius, which runs six group homes in Lincoln County, said it has lost 28 percent of the staff it had before the pandemic. Statewide, those agencies report staff numbers are down 20 percent.

They say the biggest problem is pay. State government sets the pay rate for those workers through the Maine Care program, and it hasn’t kept up with minimum wage increases, let alone get ahead of them.

Rebecca Emmons, director of Mobius, said staffing is at minimum levels at several homes, and any further losses will force tough choices.

“In the past week and a half we’ve had conversations with 10 families to talk about the reality that if one more direct support professional leaves, becomes ill, takes a long absence, we will be calling on families to come in and work in the houses to support their loved ones in the houses living here since 1982.”

Laura Cordes, director of the Maine Association of Community Service Providers said they’re hoping the Legislature will pass a bill, LD 1573, to raise starting pay for those jobs above minimum wage and provide the automatic cost of living increases to keep pay several dollars above the minimum. She said the Mills Administration has just proposed bonuses for those workers, using one-time federal funds, but says that’s not the same as a dependable permanent pay raise. Those discussions are continuing.

Cordes said the bill in the Legislature would require state funding of about $20 million the first year and $23 million the second. That money would leverage added federal dollars.

Lawmakers are expected to vote on it in the next few days before they adjourn.

 

 

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