In an abrupt reversal, the Baker administration will issue new regulations to ensure that thousands of low-wage nursing home workers will be included in a state-mandated pay raise.
The administration disclosed the change to the Globe on Thursday, after coming under fire from advocates and lawmakers who had included $35.5 million in the state budget to help lift the wages of the most poorly paid employees at nursing homes.
These workers earn about $11 an hour and do grueling jobs such as changing soiled sheets and scrubbing floors. But the Baker administration insisted on following a strict interpretation of language in the state budget, which meant that raises would go only to nursing staff and managers.
Last week, the union that represents health care workers and the nursing home trade group sent a joint letter to state Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders, asking that the pay increases go to low-wage workers instead of managers. Then legislative leaders sought a broader interpretation of the budget rules from the administration.
Following a front-page story in the Globe on Monday and more calls from the news organization on Thursday, the administration changed its stance. The new regulations are being drawn up, and a public hearing will be scheduled this fall.
“The Baker administration was pleased to receive feedback during the standard public comment period,” according to a statement from Tim Buckley, a spokesman for Governor Charlie Baker. “The administration concurred with stakeholders, and expanded the definition to include social work and activity assistants.”
Most nursing homes in Massachusetts receive funding from the state through the Medicaid program for low-income residents. The state taxes nursing homes, and some of the money can be used for pay raises.
The state budget stipulates that “direct care” nursing staff are eligible for pay increases. The administration is proposing to change the definition to include workers who do laundry, housekeeping, and food preparation. The state is recommending that managers, such as directors of nursing, be excluded.
“I am very happy the governor and secretary made this decision,” said Senator Karen Spilka, chair of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, who was among lawmakers pushing for the raises. “The workers are so in need of this. It will make a difference in their lives.”
Senator Harriette Chandler, the Senate majority leader and a champion on issues for the elderly, said lawmakers intended all along for the money to go to the lowest-paid workers.
“Our loved ones, the most vulnerable people in society, are in our nursing homes, and we want them well cared for. We want to make sure the people who care for them are able to be self-supporting and not worrying about whether they can pay their rent or put food on their table,” Chandler said. “And we don’t want them having to take three jobs in order to do that.”
Local 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the union that represents nursing home employees, and elder advocates spent months lobbying lawmakers for the raises. The argument: The money was sorely needed to ease financial pressures on thousands of workers and improve the quality of care delivered in the state’s 400 nursing homes.
They teamed up with the industry group, the Massachusetts Senior Care Association, to campaign for higher wages. A report by the group said nursing aides earn a median wage of about $13 an hour, while housekeeping, laundry, and food service workers make even less.
There are about 77,000 nursing home care workers in the state; more than 11,000 would not have gotten raises under the Baker administration’s initial interpretation of the law.
The law does not detail the size of raises. When adopted, the raises would be retroactive to Oct. 1, 2016.
“We were pleased with the opportunity to work collaboratively with the Baker administration and other advocates on these new regulations, and believe they will enable us to put our valuable and dedicated frontline workers on a path to earning a living wage,” Tara Gregorio, senior vice president of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association, said in a statement.
The union also praised the administration for listening to its concerns, but used the opportunity to push the governor to rethink his new overtime policy for personal care attendants under the state’s Medicaid program.
These workers, which the union also represents, assist the elderly and people with disabilities in their homes. The Baker administration began capping the salaries of the so-called PCAs after a federal ruling granted overtime protections to home-care workers. Now they will need the state to approve any hours worked above 40 hours a week.
“Quality care is directly linked to quality jobs, and we applaud our state leaders for their continued investment in our nursing home workforce,” said Tyrék D. Lee Sr., executive vice president at 1199SEIU. “We are hopeful we can come to a similar resolution with the Baker administration to develop a fair overtime policy for personal care attendants that ensures consumers’ choice in the care they receive and maintains access to quality PCA services.”
Buckley, the governor’s spokesman, said the overtime policy will not affect the level of service people receive. He said the administration has increased the budget for PCAs by $130 million over the past two years. PCAs make $14.12 an hour, and the state has already agreed to raise these workers’ wages in 2018 to a minimum of $15.