“Will Work for Change,” emblazoned the yellow tee-shirts of about 25 students from the Social Work program at St. Olaf College, at the Capitol this past Monday. They joined about 700 other undergraduate students from colleges around the state to talk to us about specific legislative policies that truly make a difference in people’s lives. Unfortunately, these occupations don’t offer a great salary, underscoring the passion these young men and women have for a career choice that satisfies them in so many other ways. These students have a clear desire to empower individuals and advocate for their well-being within the communities in which they live. Minnesota would benefit immensely from many more young service-oriented professionals like them. Unfortunately, few follow a professional path in this direction because a common theme spans social work and related career fields: low wages and worker shortages. This was reinforced at recent meetings with nursing home workers at a meeting in Owatonna and a town hall meeting for persons with disabilities in Faribault. Potential employees take better paying jobs at hospitals and clinics or choose other career options perpetuating the problem.
Providing high quality community services requires not just social workers, but also transit drivers, housekeepers, cooks, crisis managers, medical care providers, not to mention those who help with bathing and dressing. The people who work these jobs are passionate, caring people who love their clients and the sense of purpose it brings them. Unfortunately, they really do work for “change,” averaging just $11.55/hour with many making much less. Too often, low wages lead to higher turnover, which reduces the quality of care. The people who want to do this work are out there, but low pay is a severe barrier to continuing their careers. Too often, they don’t even start because of it.
My soon to be 16-year-old daughter will be looking for a summer job in the next month or so. I suggested she consider one of our local care facilities, hoping she would learn some of the skills that come with a tough job that provides dignity, safety, and hope to our community members. She looked at me quizzically and mumbled something about a job at a cash register with flexible hours. When a retail job can earn just as much or even more, it was difficult for me to make a compelling case for this industry to someone just entering the workforce. Of course, we need retail employees too, but I have concerns about the future of our seniors, people with disabilities, and our community’s most vulnerable. Unless we address the low pay and the current funding model for our counties, nursing homes, and home and community-based services, we will face a crisis within a few short years. Some would argue we have already reached that crisis point.
Listening to social workers, care providers, nurses, administrators, and others share their passion for their rewarding careers reinforces the need that we as a state must do more. The quality of life of our seniors and citizens with disabilities depends on it. There are bills in legislature that offer solutions. They include Medical Assistance reform and another 5% campaign (increasing compensation to care providers). The time is now. I applaud those who really do “work for change.”