3 of the Best Ways to Celebrate Labor Day All Year

Robyn's Read | August 21, 2016

Providers of aging services must help the nation recognize the value of workers who deliver direct care to our growing population of older Americans. Like the original organizers of Labor Day, our best chance of success will come from our own bold action.

In 1887, Oregon became the first state in the union to officially set aside the first Monday in September to celebrate the many contributions of our nation’s workers.

But Labor Day didn’t start in Oregon.

The Labor Day tradition actually began a full 5 years before the Oregon legislature took its bold action. And workers -- not legislators -- began the movement by holding their own parade in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882.

After the revelers had gone home, the parade organizers then launched a rigorous grassroots campaign that, over the next 12 years, would convince state and federal legislators to join what had, by then, become the Labor Day movement.

LABOR DAY LESSONS

Like those Labor Day organizers, we in the field of long-term services and supports (LTSS) must help the nation recognize the value of workers who deliver direct care to our growing population of older Americans.

And also like those organizers, our best chance of success will come from our own bold action.

I learned these lessons while participating in a recent briefing organized by the American Society of Aging (ASA) to bring attention to the looming workforce crisis facing the LTSS field and the nation.

The briefing explored the frightening question posed by the title of the Spring 2016 issue of ASA’s Generations journal: “Who Will Be There to Care?

The Labor Day organizers of yesteryear would certainly have recognized a few of the lessons that Generations authors shared with briefing attendees.

LESSON #1: DIRECT CARE WORKERS ARE OUR MOST VALUABLE ASSETS

Americans currently depend on direct care workers to provide high-quality and compassionate care to the most important people in our lives: our mothers, fathers, spouses, aunts, uncles, and friends.

In the coming decades, these workers will become even more valuable to the nation because they will be in short supply just when we need them the most.

“We know that the demand for health and long-term care services will expand inexorably as the population ages,” write Amy York from the Eldercare Workforce Alliance and Abby Marquand of PHI in their Generations article. “What we do not know is who will ultimately care for the 10,000 people turning age 65 each day.”

And, remember, it’s not just warm bodies we’re looking for. Our goals should be to recruit workers who are trained properly and who feel that they have a bright future in a valued profession.

Right now, we’re not doing a great job of meeting either target.

LESSON #2: WE CAN'T HAVE A STABLE WORKFORCE WITHOUT A SOLID INVESTMENT

Woefully inadequate compensation seriously damages our ability to attract well-trained workers to the LTSS field. After all, how can we expect workers to dedicate themselves to a complex and demanding job that pays only $18,729 a year?

That’s the annual earnings average for certified nursing assistants, according to a Generations article by Steven L. Dawson from PHI. Become a personal care worker and you can expect to bring home even less -- $13,361.

It should come as no surprise that 49% of direct care workers live in households that are dependent on some form of public assistance.

But we have to wonder: is this level of compensation any way to show direct care workers that we value the services they provide?

As the demand for those services rises, as the labor supply shrinks, and as unemployment rates fall, we’ll have a hard time convincing good people to take any job in our sector.

Paying a living wage would be a good place to start.

LESSON #3: WE NEED TO USE OUR WORKFORCE MORE CREATIVELY

I joined 2 colleagues at the briefing to explore new ways of designing eldercare jobs so our LTSS system works better for workers and elders alike.

Manmeet Kaur of City Health Works proposed that we make better use of community health workers to close gaps in care and reduce health disparities, particularly for elders with complex needs. Terry Fulmer from The John A. Hartford Foundation made a good case for relying more on interdisciplinary teams to provide high-quality, coordinated care.

Finally, I discussed my belief that recruiting foreign-born or migrant workers could represent one solution to our projected shortage of direct care workers. Immigrants already make up a large part of this workforce, in both urban and rural communities across the country.

LESSON #4: WE NEED TO TAKE ACTION TOGETHER

Labor Day organizers didn’t just sit back and wait for legislators to jump on their bandwagon. Instead, they threw their own party and then convinced others to join in.

That’s what we need to do.

Dawson and fellow guest editor Christopher A. Langston suggest in their introduction to the Generations issue that meeting the needs of future elders is going to require a dramatic redesign of the LTSS system. But that redesign cannot be achieved within the current political environment -- and it won’t be successful without the full participation of our workers.

Dawson and Langston aren’t suggesting we give up. Instead, they propose that LTSS professionals and organizations work together to “raise the eldercare workforce to a far higher level of priority.”

What does that mean for providers of aging services?

It means nothing less than reordering your organizational priorities to put workers first.

  • Start by acknowledging that you cannot deliver services and support to older adults without your direct care workers. 
  • Then, invest in concrete efforts to adequately compensate, train, and provide good working conditions and promising career paths for the people you rely on to carry out your good work.
  • Finally, recognize that the U.S. needs a pipeline of workers to meet the demands of a growing elderly population over the next two decades. You need to ensure that policies and provider practices create the right incentives to attract individuals to these jobs.

DIFFICULT BUT NECESSARY

Will taking these 3 steps be difficult? Most certainly.

But just like Labor Day’s organizers, our own bold action is the best way to convince policy makers that we value our workers -- and that they should too.