BOISE - A shortage of direct-care workers who serve Idahoans with intellectual and physical disabilities and aging seniors is becoming more acute due to multiple factors, including low wages, safety concerns related to the corona virus pandemic, and difficulty finding people to work in the direct-care field, officials said Wednesday.

More than 17,355 of these Idaho citizens, many of whom live alone, with a spouse or family in their own homes or apartments, need daily in-home support either through self-directed programs or community service providers, each funded by Medicaid. Wages for direct-care workers can range from a low of $7.25/hour at the state minimum wage to $10-$15/hour, depending on education, experience and budget.

“The workforce shortage has gotten worse with the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s extremely difficult to keep our employees,” said Becky Baily, an administrator for the Center for Independent Living in Twin Falls. “A number of our employees and staff have had to stay home in quarantine or they’ve been hospitalized with COVID. We have a number of full-time shifts to be filled.”

Even as an administrator, Baily has left her office on numerous occasions to help people in the community who wouldn’t receive help any other way. These are people who might experience seizures, cerebral palsy, congestive heart failure, glaucoma or other health conditions, she said. They need help every day.

“The situation is dire,” Baily said.

“It’s a nightmare,” adds Mark Leeper, executive director of the Disability Action Center in Moscow. “We’re asking people in Idaho to work for $10.50 an hour and the state of Washington pays $15 to $18 an hour for the same type of work. We can’t compete. That really hurts us on the border here with Washington, where they pay much higher wages.”

Ironically, the shortage of direct-care workers comes at a time when Idaho has a statewide unemployment rate of 4.8 percent, or 43,815 people who are unemployed at last count as of the end of November 2020, according to the Idaho Department of Labor.

“Health care jobs have been in high demand for several years,” explains Kristyn Carr, deputy director of Workforce Services for the Idaho Department of Labor. “We just need to remember many of these occupations – especially higher-paying positions – are harder to fill because they require training or certification.”

Statistics from the Idaho Department of Labor indicate the demand for personal care aides resulted in 1,811 job postings for personal care aides in the last 12 months, where salaries range from $29,000-$50,000. The need for more employees in that industry is growing at 37 percent, IDOL officials said. The category has “very high demand” for more workers, officials said.

In a similar vein, there have been 1,679 job openings for certified nursing assistants in the last 12 months, and 719 job postings for home health aides. All of those jobs take about 50 days to fill, officials said.

For about 1,885 individuals with disabilities who have gone through training sessions with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and qualify to develop their own self-directed care plan, the shortage of direct-care employees is affecting them as well.

Take Pam Willey of Boise, for example. She has quadriplegia, and she needs help in the mornings to get out of bed, and services to help her get in bed at night, help with house-keeping, picking up groceries, etc. She has five part-time community support workers that help her.

“I just had someone quit,” Willey said. “It’s hard to find new people, but they are so valuable to me. They are giving me a life outside of my bedroom. My care providers mean so much to me.”

Willey pays her employees $7.30/hour for doing house-hold chores and $10.30/hour when they’re providing direct personal support, following the Medicaid wage protocols approved in her spending plan.

Shiloh Blackburn is a 45-year-old Pocatello resident with cerebral palsy. She directs her care by hiring and training her own staff to help her with getting out of bed, bathing, household chores, running errands, etc. She receives 9 hours of support each day. She’s had to hire about six people so far this year, after some others quit. She pays them $11/hour, and some up to $15/hour, depending on experience and education.

“As it is now, it’s just hard keeping people,” Blackburn says. “The main problem is the people I hire haven’t been very stable or reliable.”

Baily and Leeper say that if they could pay direct-care workers $15/hour, they could keep people on the job longer than they can now.

“I’ve had some great people in the interview process who really want to help people in need – they really want to do this direct-care work – but then I get a phone call a day or two later that they’ve found a better-paying job, and they’re really apologetic, but they need to make more money just to pay rent and get by,” Leeper says. “I can’t blame them.”

Baily is working to fill four positions right now at the Center for Independent Living in Twin Falls. The positions start at $10.50 an hour with health benefits.

“We’re hoping to find people who really want to help other people,” she says. “You are building relationships with these folks. I get a lot of value and satisfaction from knowing that these people are being successful in their lives.”

People who are interested in pursuing a career in health care should contact their local Idaho Department of Labor office, officials said.

“We have a lot of resources to offer, including work experience and training for people who want to upgrade their skills or obtain a certificate that leads to a higher paying job,” Carr said.

During the last federal program year, more than 7,000 Idaho businesses tapped the agency’s services for help with accessing skilled workers and workforce training resources, she said. “Bottom line, we have something for everyone.”