Last year, certified nursing assistants at his facility received a pay increase to at least $13 an hour after a union negotiation. Sloan said he did not stay for the added money.
Rather, working with others offers a unique life perspective “on what’s really important,” he said.
It’s unclear how many direct care workers, like Sloan, received pay increases since the pandemic began. Agencies bill the state differently and then pass on the pay to workers. And some workers may have jobs with two or more agencies.
The boost came just in time for Sloan. The odometer on his 2010 Chevy Malibu was inching toward 300,000 miles; costly repairs were becoming nearly routine. With the bump, he was able to trade in the 2010 Malibu for a lower-mileage 2011 Malibu.
“I was able to save up and completely pay it off, without a note. It was a blessing,” he said.
Outside of nursing facilities, direct care workers provide personal care, training, emotional support and respite to an estimated 100,000 Michigan residents with mental illness or developmental disabilities, according to a coalition of advocacy groups pushing for a permanent increase.
According to the coalition, workers in these jobs start at $11.44 an hour, often with no medical or other benefits. The jobs are often at agencies with little wiggle room in their budgets for pay raises. That includes agencies such as MOKA, where VanVolkinburg works in Muskegon, Ottawa, Kent and Allegan counties.
Tracey Hamlet, MOKA’s executive director, said she’d love to pay staff more. They deserve it, she said.
But nearly all its revenue comes from Medicaid reimbursements — it “pays only so much,” she said, with 89.6 percent of that money used to pay caregivers and their supervisors.
Workers who find ways to make ends meet stay, she said, because they “love to impact the lives of others and they love the joy it brings them.”
But pay levels make it difficult to recruit and retain workers.
“The pandemic makes it worse,” Hamlet said. “You’re asking people to work in a low-pay job. It’s tough work and it’s at their risk, too.”
Others who work alongside direct care workers say they deserve a pay boost from the state as well. Angela Davenport works with Sloan at Omni Continuing Care in Detroit, but as a dietary aide, not a direct care worker, which puts her outside the legislative pay bump.
Davenport said she puts in 60 hours a week at two nursing homes to make ends meet. Even so, with gas inching toward $3 a gallon, sometimes, she said, “I just don’t fill up.”
“My apartment is $800 a month,” she said. “My car note is $350, and my insurance is $250. Then there’s groceries, toiletries, and I have to pay the light bill and the phone bill, and gas,” she said. “That two dollars would really help me.”
Sloan agrees, noting that Davenport and other dietary workers prepare food to specific consistencies and to meet individual patients’ nutritional needs, making them essential as well. And they, too, have families and children who rely on their wages.
“It has been a long road, and people have made a lot of sacrifices along the way,” Sloan said of the people who tend to the most vulnerable. “We want to be shown and feel that we’ve been appreciated through a lot of sacrifices.”
This story was produced through the New York & Michigan Solutions Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of news organizations and universities dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about successful responses to social problems. The group is supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.
The collaborative’s first series, Invisible Army: Caregivers on the Front Lines, focuses on potential solutions to challenges facing caregivers of older adults.