So many elderly, so few care workers

Molita Cunningham has worked as a health aide for more than 30 years. But in the last two decades, she says her wages have barely risen.

"In the 90s, I was making $8.25 an hour, which wasn't a whole lot to try to survive on. I was living paycheck to paycheck," Cunningham said. "I haven't seen a whole lot of change."

Cunningham said her current wage of $10 an hour as a home health aide in Florida keeps a roof over her head but still requires her to rely on government assistance to make ends meet. She added that she loves her job, which involves taking care of a woman in her 90s who suffered a stroke, and so Cunningham doesn't plan on leaving the industry, which many of her colleagues have done.

The industry trends Cunningham is noticing -- stagnant wages and high turnover -- are poised to create a major crisis in the coming years, when the aging baby boomer population creates a tsunami of demand for home care workers. Currently, about 19 million seniors need long-term support and services, a number that will double by 2050, according to a study from the Fight for 15, a labor movement that's advocating for higher wages for home health care workers and other low-paid Americans.

"Our long-term care system isn't equipped to meet their needs," Andrew Hamilton, research coordinator at Service Employees International Union, which is backing the Fight for 15 movement, said on a conference call to discuss the study. Higher wages and better training are required to ensure the best quality care for older Americans, he noted.

Given the country's aging population, the number of home health care jobs is expected to grow five times faster than jobs in all other occupations, according to a report published earlier this year from the National Employment Law Project. Yet despite the higher demand, average hourly wages have actually declined by 6 percent during the past decade.

With those low wages, it's not surprising that Cunningham isn't alone in relying on government assistance. About half of all home care workers need public programs such as food stamps or Medicaid, according to NELP.

The Fight for 15's call for higher wages for home health care workers coincides with the White House Conference on Aging, which took place on Monday. It featured sessions that examined caregiving, retirement security and other issues related to aging. As part of the conference, the White House is proposing a new rule to update the quality and safety requirements for more than 15,000 nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities.

Home health workers make a median annual wage of about $10 per hour, or less than $21,000 per year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Wages have suffered because of issues such as federal laws that exclude home health personnel from wage protections, weak union representation and the large number of low-skilled workers in the field, many of whom are minority women.

Aside from the low pay, working as a home health worker can be difficult. The Department of Health and Human Services notes that the occupation exposes workers to a number of serious and life-threatening hazards, such as abuse, unhygienic conditions and overexertion. In 2007, the agency recorded 27,400 injuries among the industry's roughly 900,000 workers.

That may deter more workers from joining the profession just as more aging Americans will need help. Currently, there are about nine seniors for each home care worker, although the care gap varies by state. Florida, with its senior-heavy population, has a 35-to-one ratio, giving it the biggest care gap in the country, according to the Fight for 15.

"With $15 an hour, I could breathe a little easier," Cunningham said. Why don't more home health workers demand higher wages? Her answer: "People are afraid of losing their jobs."