Congress should require each state to increase wages and benefits for more than 700,000 workers in the nation's 16,000 nursing homes, bringing them into line with earnings of similar employees with jobs in the hospital industry. Otherwise, the existing shortage of such workers - with nearly one in five nursing home jobs now vacant - will worsen as America's elderly population continues to soar.
That was the message on Capitol Hill from a leader of a union representing 40,000 nurses and 60,000 nurses aides across the country.
"Unless we address the existing crisis among paid caregivers for the elderly and infirm, we are inviting scandals and warehousing of the elderly on an unprecedented scale," warned Kathy Sackman, RN, Co-Chair of United Nurses of America, the nursing wing of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.
Sackman testified before the House Subcommittee on Health and Environment in support of a bill sponsored by Congressman Doug Walgren (D-PA). Walgren's bill would require each state Medicaid plan to guarantee to all nursing personnel in nursing homes wages and benefits comparable to nursing personnel at work in other health-care facilities, like hospitals, in that locality. About half of the cost of nursing home care is paid by Medicaid. If enacted, the Walgren bill would t>e phased in over 6 years.
In introducing his bill, Walgren said that low pay is a major reason that "nursing homes cannot attract and retain nursing staff," adding that "because nursing staff is so hard to attract, those who do work in nursing homes are overloaded."
Sackman cited statistics showing a wide gap between average earnings for comparable jobs in nursing homes and hospitals. Nurses employed in nursing homes earn roughly 17% less than their hospital counterparts, whereas nurses aides in nursing homes earn 36% less than those employed in hospitals, according to Sackman.
She also emphasized figures from a report that shows that nursing homes now face an 18.9% shortage of nursing staff, a rate nearly twice that of hospitals.
Sackman predicted that this shortage will worsen in the next decade and, by the year 2000, more than 425,000 new nursing aides will be needed in the nursing home industry, according to US Labor Department projections. Improved wages and benefits might cost "less than or at least equal" the costs needed to hire and train replacement workers, said Sackman. Current turnover rates average 70% to 100% per year among nurses aides.
For more information, contact David Hoffman, AFSCME, AFL-CIO, 1625 L Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-429-1130.