As Baby Boomers Age, Nursing Homes Face A Growing Labor Shortage

Direct-care health aides — the people who care for elderly Americans by helping them bathe, dress, and eat — represent the nation’s fastest-growing occupation. Nevertheless, as the Baby Boomer generation of Americans are about to enter old age, this health care sector is facing a serious labor shortage. That’s largely due to the fact that those positions don’t pay much more than minimum wage, even though they’re incredibly demanding jobs.

The Wall Street Journal reports that nursing homes and in-home health care agencies are already struggling to find direct-care workers, and advertisements for open positions in the field jumped by 120 percent over the past year. That’s partly because a fifth of this workforce is over the age of 55 and beginning to retire, but it’s also because it’s difficult to retain employees who are willing to work in difficult conditions for low wages:

Nursing aides, mostly women, do some of the toughest work in nursing homes — hoisting residents out of bed and changing their diapers. They are among the residents’ closest companions, spending more time with them than relatives typically do, and are often first to spot a turn for the worse that requires medical attention. Their rate of occupational injury, usually related to back or muscle strains, is higher than construction and factory workers. Aides are sometimes kicked, bitten or spat upon by residents suffering from dementia.

Such demands lead to high labor turnover. Between 43% and 75% of nursing aides turn over each year, various studies have found. That compares with a 28% rate for all health-care and social-assistance jobs in 2012, according to U.S. government data. […]

Low pay doesn’t help. The median hourly wage for nursing aides is $11.74, according to the U.S. Labor Department, compared with $16.71 per hour for all occupations.

“These people are the actual backbone of nursing-home care,” says Lew Little, chief executive officer of Harden Healthcare LLC, Austin, Texas. Hourly pay for nursing aides at some of Harden’s nursing homes in Texas starts at $8.25, or $1 above the minimum wage.

There were about 40 million Americans over the age of 65 in 2010. As the Baby Boomers age, that number is projected to reach 73 million by 2030. The U.S. government estimates that growing elderly population will require five million direct-care workers in 2020 — nearly 50 percent more than the current workforce.

Direct-care health workers are essential foot soldiers in carrying out many of the reforms included in Obamacare, as the health law works to reduce medical costs by coordinating care more efficiently. The Obama Administration has pushed to increase labor protections for health aides — who often don’t receive adequate benefits, thanks to a federal loophole that classifies in-home health workers in the same “companion” category as babysitters — but Republican lawmakers and business groups have criticized the effort.