The Illinois State Capitol in Springfield. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Much-needed direct caregivers deserve fair pay

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We are facing a silent crisis in Illinois, and it affects all of us. It is a crisis about how we provide care for seniors, how our safety net should respond to the massive increase in the population of older adults, and how we ensure that we have a skilled, compassionate workforce to care for them.


But this crisis — spurred by demographic changes that we as a society are not fully prepared for — is made worse by a profit-driven system that benefits the powerful, while the rest of us are paying the price. The humane way to address this situation would be to recognize the exploding need for care and pay caregivers a living wage so that we can maintain an experienced, loyal work force.

Unfortunately, something very different is happening so that businesses can maximize their profits at the expense of the quality of life of nursing home residents and nursing home workers.

Tanisha Johnson, a Chicago-area Certified Nursing Assistant, has 13 years of experience, along with three kids of her own, including a toddler.

“We’ve been fighting against low wages and disrespect on the job for over a year now,” said Ms. Johnson. “I love the residents I care for — they’re family to me — and I love my work. But I don’t love having to juggle bills and have my children suffer because my paycheck is so low.”

When Ms. Johnson does her job, the people she cares for benefit immeasurably — as do their families. But after enough years without a living wage, she may have no choice but to leave the field, and our state will have lost yet another loving caregiver, at precisely the time that we need more of them.

Caregivers occupy important jobs in our state in a field that is rapidly expanding. Yet half of direct care workers at nursing facilities live in poverty and one out of three households that include a direct care provider at a nursing home depends on Medicaid, food stamps, or public cash assistance to supplement wages.

Most nursing homes are for-profit companies, and their profit comes from taxpayers. More than half of their revenue comes from Medicaid and Medicare. But because their business model includes paying workers so little that they depend on public assistance to get by, the public is subsidizing these companies twice.

Nursing home workers, the majority of whom are women of color, are paid on average just above minimum wage. And dozens of nursing homes in the Chicago area are asking some workers to accept less than minimum wage. As a result, they are among the lowest paid workers in the state, turnover is high and providers are often stretched beyond capacity.

That’s why more than 10,000 workers across 120 Chicagoland nursing homes are taking a stand for themselves and those they care for. Together, they are demanding wages that fairly compensate them for the challenging nature of their work — and that would improve resident care by lowering turnover.

This isn’t just a math problem — it’s a matter of humanity. The loved ones Illinoisans entrust to these nursing homes for comfort and care are being mistreated and abandoned. And the nursing home workers who sincerely care for their nursing home residents, are understaffed, underpaid and overworked. Our aging population, deserves quality care from workers who are able to support their families and put food on the table.

For their sake, let’s make sure nursing home jobs are good jobs that prioritize quality care over cutting corners for profit.

Daniel Biss is an Illinois state senator and a candidate for Illinois governor.

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