AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine legislators are using their off-season to look for ways to help nursing homes and home health providers find more workers. It has become a major problem, and is already affecting Maine’s elderly residents and their families.

Those in the elder care industry say they have a critical shortage of direct care workers, with thousands of jobs going unfilled, according to the Maine Council on Aging. Nursing home operators and home care providers say the shortage of workers is causing some elderly people to lose services, and in some cases they can’t get care at all because providers don’t have enough staff.

The big problem, says Mary Jane Richards, COO of Maine’s largest nursing home business, is low pay.

"I just saw a sign in Rockland for a fast food chain restaurant offering higher wages than our industry offers for direct care," Richards said.

Asked what went through he mind when she saw the sign, Richards said "impossible."

"We’re not going to be able to meet this need until we can offer wages higher than some of the fast food or Walmarts, some of the less stressful jobs."

Those pay levels are largely dictated by how much Maine DHHS will reimburse providers through the Medicaid program. The Council on Aging says pay for direct care workers is typically $12 to $14 per hour.

So the Legislature has formed a special commission to identify ways to help solve those problems. Commission co-chair Sen. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, says there are several key issues, but agrees money may be top of the list.

“Most of the emails and comments I have received from people who work in this field or try to hire in this field and they say its all about wages,” Herbig said at a Tuesday press conference.

She also said health care benefits may be one item they can address. Currently he providers choose whether to provide benefits. Many direct care workers are part time and often dint receive benefits.

That commission starts work Wednesday and is expected to have recommendations by the end of the year.

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