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Originally published February 15, 2012 at 3:38 PM | Page modified February 16, 2012 at 9:48 AM

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More cuts to home-care workforce will be costly in the long run

With a surge in the state's senior population, it makes no sense to continue eroding support for Washington's home-care workforce, says the president of SEIU Healthcare 775NW.

Special to The Times

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"Why They Leave; Turnover Among Washington's Home Care Workers," with academic contributions from University of Washington professors Amy Hagopian and Dan Jacoby, is at
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Let me tell you about my niece. She is disabled. She is 22 yrs old and requires... MORE
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AS the Legislature considers more budget cuts on top of the more than $10 billion already slashed, a new report, "Why They Leave; Turnover Among Washington's Home Care Workers," shows that further targeting the long-term-care workforce would be costly to the state.

One in five of the more than 42,000 people who care for seniors and people with disabilities lives in poverty, making barely more than $10 per hour on average. Up to half will be forced to leave the field this year. This high turnover not only increases costs but also will make it increasingly difficult to recruit enough caregivers to care for the growing senior population in our state.

The report, developed by SEIU Healtcare 775NW, concluded that several factors, including low wages, inadequate training and the lack of a career pathway for home-care workers, have led to the turnover and escalating costs to the state. The cost of losing a worker, and training a new one, is about $5,000 per year. This presents a serious long-term problem as the state is expected to see its 65-and-up population skyrocket by 2030.

As the senior population grows, demand for long-term care will increase by 56 percent over the next 20 years, meaning the state will need an estimated 35,000 more home-care workers, according to the report.

Assuming the annual turnover rate continues, nearly 440,000 total home-care workers will need to be trained in the next two decades to meet the demand. The financial burden to the state would be as devastating as it is preventable.

Increased utilization of home- and community-based alternatives to service Washington's long-term-care needs from 1996 to present has saved more than $3.34 billion. But over the past several years, the Legislature has targeted the long-term-care system for budget cuts, slashing more than 14 percent of home-care hours for vulnerable clients, eliminating quality training standards, and sending even more home-care workers into poverty.

The majority of workers leaving home care say they want a job that has career-advancement and skill-development opportunities. Increased training standards required under voter-approved Initiative 1163 are a step in the right direction.

National campaigns like Caring Across Generations are working to ensure the baby-boomer generation receives the quality care it needs. This coalition of senior, disability rights, faith and community groups is uniting across the country to engage leaders in this effort, including a recent event at the Greenwood Senior Center, where more than 200 people attended to support the cause.

Still, we are all stuck with the reality that we are woefully unprepared for the projected increases in the senior population and demand for long-term-care services.

According to the report, "the level of poverty among Washington's home-care worker households is 6.6 percent higher than the national average and 9.1 percent higher than the statewide average." This isn't a recipe for meeting the future workforce demand and ensuring quality care.

The Times has pointed to the need to adopt long-term reforms even as the Legislature focuses on the current budget deficit. Few long-term challenges are more pressing than the growing senior population and the demand it will place on long-term-care services.

One common-sense reform would be to take steps to lessen turnover among home-care providers — reducing costs now and in the long-term, and creating a stable and professional workforce.

David Rolf is president of SEIU Healthcare 775NW, which represents 40,000 home-care and nursing-home workers in Washington.

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