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Wisconsin’s direct care workforce crisis puts people with disabilities and older adults at risk


November is National Family Caregivers Month, which celebrates the important contributions made by family, friends and neighbors to allow older adults and people with disabilities to lead safe and healthy lives in the community. It also highlights the increased demands placed on families in the face of the direct care workforce crisis.

Wisconsin is currently experiencing a crisis-level shortage of direct care workers that is leaving families without options and people with disabilities and older adults without needed care. Direct care workers help people get out of bed, use the bathroom, get dressed, prepare meals, travel to and from work or school and other activities necessary for daily living.

More than 85% of Wisconsinites who rely on direct care workers for some or all of their support needs say they cannot find enough workers. As a result, people with disabilities and older adults are going without needed assistance—putting them in danger of serious illness, harm and a loss of independence.

We have heard from people who have been left in their wheelchair overnight or in their bed all day because there were no workers available to help them. One person was alone for over 18 hours without food or bathroom assistance because they could not find a worker. Family caregivers, concerned about the health and safety of their loved ones, are thinking about quitting their jobs to become full-time caregivers or moving their family member out of a community living arrangement and into a nursing home or institutional setting, which are also struggling to find care workers.

Wisconsin has long been a national leader in supporting people with disabilities and older adults in the community instead of institutions, but the workforce crisis threatens to undo this progress. The community is not only where people prefer to live, it is also the most cost-effective setting for taxpayers. Yet people across the state are now being forced to choose between living in the community without necessary supports or moving to a nursing home or institution.

The direct care workforce crisis is being driven by high worker turnover rates and growing job vacancies. Direct care agencies cannot keep up with the increased costs of doing business and pay workers a competitive wage with the current reimbursement rate, which has not had an adequate increase in over 14 years.  Provider agencies, struggling to keep their doors open, are reporting turnover rates as high as 67% because they cannot increase workers’ wages. Unable to make ends meet, many workers leave direct care jobs for better-paying work at fast food restaurants or gas stations.

Demand for direct care services is set to increase by 28% between now and 2024.  There are already an estimated 2,300 personal care job openings each year in Wisconsin. If direct care turnover rates remain at current levels and jobs continue to go unfilled, the number of people living without assistance will only grow.

Wisconsin must take action now to address the direct care workforce crisis.

Darci Knapp, president, Wisconsin Personal Services Association; Beth Swedeen, executive director, Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities; Robert J. Kellerman, chairman, Wisconsin Aging Advocacy Network; Todd Costello, past chairman, Wisconsin Long-term Care Workforce Alliance; Lisa Pugh, public policy director, Disability Rights Wisconsin; Maureen Ryan, Kit Kerschensteiner and Beth Swedeen, co-chairmen, Survival Coalition of Wisconsin Disability Organizations.


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