Column: Michigan lawmakers must prioritize underpaid essential workers

October 4, 2021 7:23 am

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When my mother and grandmother got sick and I started taking care of them, I knew right away that helping others was what I was made to do.

That passion has sustained me over the last 20 years working as a dietary aide in the nursing home industry. Every day, I work hard to ensure our residents are fed and cared for. My passion has helped me to get through some of our darkest days, but it can only go so far.

Nursing home workers, who have given so much throughout this pandemic, need real support.

In the coming months, the state has an opportunity and a responsibility to support essential nursing home workers and help stabilize this workforce, by passing a pandemic pay raise for the dietary aides, housekeepers, laundry, and other support staff who keep our nursing homes able to care for residents.

Much has been said about the stress and fatigue that health care workers face on the front lines of this pandemic. But the truth is, nursing home workers like me have long faced another stress: poverty wages.

I work 60 hours a week to make ends meet. And thank goodness my kids are grown, because there’s no way I could support them today on my wages. With 20 years of experience, I’m still only paid $16 an hour, even though the cost of living keeps going up. So I pick up as many hours as I can, running from one job to the next across town. I feel exhausted all the time.

I’m not the only one. Low wages have driven a lot of skilled and caring workers away from the field because they’re exhausted and burned out. When the nursing home loses experienced staff and cannot fill open positions, residents and their families lose out, too.

Chronic short staffing, high turnover and low pay hurt residents and the quality of care. I’m proud to be a part of a union with SEIU Healthcare Michigan that is fighting to raise wages and standards across the industry. We will keep demanding respect and fair pay from our employers and keep advocating for our residents, but we also need elected officials to do their part.

This year, state legislators took an important step to address the crisis of low pay by enacting a pandemic pay raise of $2.25 an hour for direct care workers in nursing homes. They just voted in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 budget to renew and increase that raise to $2.35 an hour, but once again left out frontline support staff like me, who also work with residents and have continued to risk our lives to provide quality care.

It felt like a slap in the face.

As Michigan legislators prepare to spend federal COVID-19 relief dollars, they have another chance to honor our commitment and sacrifice, by utilizing American Rescue Plan funds to pass Hero Pay for all essential workers. And they should expand the pandemic pay raise to include the thousands of essential nursing home workers they left behind.

In good times and in bad, support staff like me work together as a team with our nurses and nursing assistants to make sure residents have what they need. We feed residents, clean up after them, and keep the linens, equipment, and buildings clean and sanitary. We make sure that nurses and CNAs can focus on patient care, and step in to help when they need it.

Support staff are essential, too, and we should be paid like it.

Our passion for taking care of others and our commitment to our residents has kept us showing up, but the truth is, we’re exhausted. It’s past time for our elected officials to show up for us.

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Angela Davenport
Angela Davenport

Angela Davenport is a member of SEIU Healthcare Michigan and dietary aide who works two nursing home jobs in Detroit.