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Personal Care Worker Shortage Could Lead to Higher Wages in Wisconsin

Lisa F. Young, fotolia

The state of Wisconsin may bump-up the reimbursement rate for personal care workers—the people who take care of some of the most fragile in society. Across the country, industry reports a shortage of personal care workers, in part, because people don’t believe the job pays well enough. In Wisconsin, some leaders hope a 2 percent bump in the reimbursement rate will lead to higher wages that attract more people.

Okay, so think about everything you do for yourself throughout the day. Once you wake up and peel yourself of bed, you likely brush your teeth, bathe, put on clothes, find something to eat and the list goes on and on. Henry Bilbo says that not only does he have to do those things for himself, but also for his 95 year old father.

“I lost my mom in 2000 and she died in a nursing home right over here on Bradley Road. And my father was devastated. He was never the same. My father got sick, the rest of my family wanted to put him in a nursing home. I said no. I will take care of him,” Bilbo says.

Bilbo and his dad live in a two bedroom, two bathroom apartment in Brown Deer where family photos line the living room walls. Bilbo says it’s been 12 years since he took on the responsibility of being his dad’s caregiver. And he says recently, the job has become more difficult.

“He lost his ability to walk, he can’t feed himself and he can no longer go to the bathroom so now I have to change him, he can’t get in the tub anymore. I have a Hoyer that I have to lift him with. Bring him out here. Make his food, feed him and this is ongoing,” he explains.

Bilbo says he also gets up every two hours at night to turn his dad because he’s no longer able to move much on his own.

Bilbo says it’s a never ending job and… “The pay is lousy. I make like $9 and hour. My dad needs 24 hour care, I get paid for 32 hours a week. I get paid every two weeks. That’s $600 and I don’t complain, I’m doing this for him."

Still, Bilbo says he hasn’t had a raise since he began taking care of his dad 12 years ago. And neither have other home health aides and nursing assistants who provide the in-home care that Medicaid funds.

While the federal government does set some guidelines, it gives states flexibility in determining the services covered and the reimbursement rates for personal care workers. In Wisconsin, the rate is just over $16 dollars an hour.

"They are the lowest paid position in the health care industry."

Agencies use that money to cover such expenses as insurance for employees, workers compensation and wages.

“They are the lowest paid position in the health care industry," Mindy Myers says. She’s vice president of home care and community-based services for the Milwaukee Center for Independence.

“They need their wages increased and it’s hard for us as agencies to keep them employed, due to the low wages. As well as retain them with the little margin that we get to pay them the right amount of money,” Myers says.

Late last month, the state’s Joint Committee on Finance advanced a 2 percent increase in the Medicaid reimbursement rate. But it’s not enough, according to Darci Knapp, president of the Wisconsin Personal Services Association.

“What we are asking now is for 15 percent. We appreciate the two percent, but really, to keep everything open and to keep things going in the right direction for employees, the 15 percent is what we need,” Knapp says.

Knapp says otherwise, people will continue choosing a different line of work, while the need for personal care workers is growing. “You have what they call the grey Tsunami coming as the baby boomers,” she says.

Back at Henry Bilbo’s apartment in Brown Deer, he says an increase would be nice, but he and his dad are making it. “If it wasn’t for his income I probably wouldn’t be able to sustain,” he says. 

Bilbo is not able to work while caring for his dad but is taking courses online. He may also be keeping an eye on Madison as lawmakers are working to pass a new biennial state budget by June 30.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.