An Independence home care attendant, and the Missouri Home Care Union, are asking for better pay and benefits for all attendants throughout the state.
Larry Milum, who turns 75 today, is one of 8,000 attendants who assist more than 30,000 disabled or elderly Missourians at a minimum starting wage of $7.50 an hour before taxes, according to the union. Both Milum and the union say these are poverty wages and that the base pay needs to be increased to at least $11 an hour. Larry spoke with State Sen. Paul LeVota, D-11, about the matter at his home Thursday, and explained the variety of tasks he performs daily in order to take care of his physically disabled son, Michael Milum. Some of these daily responsibilities include meal preparation, showering, dispensing medication, transportation and cleaning.
“We (home care attendants) need a livable wage,” he told LeVota.
Larry has been taking care of his son, Michael Milum, 52, since he was diagnosed with Myotonic Muscular Dystrophy 10 years ago. The debilitating disease has severely limited Michael’s mobility.
“I can’t even type or move a mouse on a computer,” he said about his condition.
Michael has been living in his father and his wife’s Independence home. For seven days a week, Larry said, he is paid a maximum of five hours per day taking care of his son. Although his current hourly wage is around $9, he says it’s still not enough. He added that his work goes way beyond the paid hours.
“We as home care attendants provide important services that keep our loved ones in their own home instead of institutional care,” he wrote. “As I and my wife age, we want to know our son and the CDS (consumer-directed services) program will continue. In order to keep attendants and good services we need a livable wage. $11.00 isn’t too much to ask.”
Larry also said that he really had no choice in taking care of his son.
“I couldn’t get no one to do it,” he recalled when trying to hire a home care attendant during the beginning of his son’s diagnosis and subsequent deterioration. He decided that he would become a consumer-directed services worker himself and became qualified at a local independent-living program. The 2007 National Survey of State Initiatives on the Direct-Care Workforce said that 97 percent of 34 responding states described direct-care vacancies and/or turnover as a “serious” or “very serious” issue.
Michael said he is fortunate to have his father and step-mother to take of him at their home. “I’m not in a prison.” His father has modified a shower stall to accommodate Michael’s needs, as well as installing a hot tub in the back patio that allows his son to soothe his ailing muscles.
Larry said he can’t imagine an attendant not as fortunate as him surviving at the current average hourly rate of $8.60, especially with today’s high cost of living. He added that he doesn’t receive stipends for fuel costs when taking his son to the doctor or other additional benefits, such as paid vacation or sick days. “It’s strictly by the hour.”
LeVota said he is “very supportive” of the increase to $11 an hour wage for home care attendants in Missouri.
“It’s common sense to have these folks living at their homes,” he said. He added that it’s less expensive than moving the patient to a care facility.
However, in order for the state to raise an attendant’s hourly wage, it would need to clear two hurdles: the Missouri General Assembly’s Budget and Appropriations Committees, said LeVota and Ben Harman of MHCU.
Harman also said some Missouri legislators consider a family care arrangement, such as the case of the Milums, as an “obligation.”
According to literature from the MHCU, attendants are often neighbors, friends or relatives who have to make changes in their working situations to care for someone in need. The state contracts with centers for independent living and other vendors to assist with consumers at the local level. These centers and vendors receive $15.16 per hour in taxpayer funds for every hour of attendant services provided. On average, they pass along about 55 percent, or $8.58 to attendants. When the current minimum hourly wage was set at $7.50 in 2000, the Missouri minimum wage was $5.15. If the same relationship were in place today between the minimum wage of $7.50 and the attendant wage, it would be $10.92 an hour for attendants. Actual hourly rates vary by center or vendor, it added.
According to the literature, consumer-directed services cost much less than nursing facility care. The average annual Missouri Medicaid cost for a Home and Community-Based Services participant in the 2013 fiscal year was $10,699. For nursing home residents, $42,292, or nearly four times higher.
MHCU is urging Missourians to contact Gov. Jay Nixon at 573-751-3222 to urge his support.
“Without an attendant I wouldn’t to be able to stay at home and be with my family. My schedule is important to my health and the things I like to do and this allows me to have a say and be me,” said Michael.