Alyson Williams, an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago who lives in Dorchester, has always known one profession: taking care of the elderly. When she was 19, her grandmother fell prey to the usual depredations of old age. “She raised me; she took care of me growing up. Then she got sick. I felt like I owed her, had so much gratitude for what’s she had done for me that I said, ‘I’m going to take care of her.’”
Now, Williams, who’s in her early 40s, is a certified nursing assistant and has been working at Marina Bay Skilled Nursing Center for the last three years. She got hired at $10 an hour; she now makes $11. “I get paid when I go to work and I’m with a difficult patient and at the end of the day the patient says to me, ‘God bless you,’ or when a patient says to me, ‘You did a great job.’ So, even though I come home with a small salary, my payment is big.”
Her $11-an-hour salary is the average starting wage for a certified nursing assistant, according to the Massachusetts Senior Care Association, which represents the nursing home industry. Some entry-level employees make even less. A long-needed one-time raise in pay may be in the offing, however, in the form of the state House of Representatives’ version of the budget unveiled last week that includes “not less than $35.5 million” in additional funding to be used to boost earnings and benefits for about 46,000 nursing home workers. Overall, Massachusetts nursing homes rely on MassHealth — the state’s Medicaid insurance for low-income and disabled residents — for about two-thirds of their funding. Nursing home assistants provide care for patients at more than 400 facilities throughout Massachusetts.
Although details still have to be worked out, there is a dire need to head off a looming crisis; the provision should stand. Vacancy rates for certified nursing assistants already are high — 10.6 percent are unfilled statewide — and will climb further unless the jobs come with a living wage.
The work is unquestionably hard. “Why is it so difficult for us to get better wages when the people who we’re taking care of are people who contributed to society?” Williams asks. She’s right. The House budget is money well spent for those who supply the most personal and most essential care for the most vulnerable patients.