direct care workers walking down the hall

(Credit: John Fedele / Getty Images)

A first-of-its-kind advisory council is giving Maine’s assisted living community, nursing home and home health direct care workers a voice in policy decisions affecting them.

A 14-member Direct Care & Support Professional Advisory Council, the result of a recommendation from a report released last week by the Maine Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, is being assembled to advise state agencies on recruitment and retention efforts in long-term care. Workforce issues are the biggest challenges facing the industry across the country. 

The report, based on focus groups of 58 direct care workers from across the state, found that the workers primarily are concerned about burnout and worker shortages, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Maine-based multiplatform branding and behavior change agency Ethos was commissioned by the state to conduct the focus groups last fall as part of the “Engage and Empower Direct Care Workers Initiative” sponsored by the ombudsman program.

Maine Health Care Association President and CEO Angela Westhoff told McKnight’s Senior Living that direct care workers have demonstrated their dedication over the past two years, logging many hours during the pandemic. 

“As we address staffing challenges across the healthcare spectrum in Maine, now is the time to ensure we value the input of those doing the work,” Westhoff said. “Their collective experience is important to recruitment and retention efforts, and the direct care worker voice will be amplified with the formation of the council.” The MHCA is the state affiliate of the American Health Care Association / National Center for Assisted Living.

Advisory council representation

Maine Long-Term Care Ombusdman Program Executive Director Brenda Gallant told McKnight’s Senior Living that the workforce advisory council will be composed entirely of direct care and direct support professionals from across the state. The goal, she said, is to ensure representation from all long-term services and supports settings, geographies, genders, races, citizenship  status and job classifications.

The report cites certified nursing assistants, home health aides, personal support specialists, personal care attendants, independent support services staff, direct support professionals, and mental health rehabilitation technicians working in assisted living communities, nursing facilities, assisted housing programs, adult family care homes, programs for people with intellectual disabilities, programs for people with brain injuries, home health and other home care agencies, and individuals who supervise their own LTSS.

Gallant anticipates that the workforce advisory council will begin meeting next month and will work with national organization PHI to develop training to support people in their new role as council members.

“The purpose of the council is to provide an opportunity and support for direct care and direct support professionals to have a strong collective voice so they can advocate,” Gallant said. “What I hope the council [members] will do is share their perspective with the Department of Labor — with respect to workforce initiatives — and be a forum to weigh in with providers around what’s important to them.”

What direct care workers want

Along with the forming of the workforce advisory council, the report also recommends elevating the status of direct care workers, creating a documentary of a “day in the life” of a direct care professional, standardizing job descriptions, providing feedback to employers, providing career paths and partnering with community colleges to develop training programs. 

Fair wages, adequate support, proactive communication, training and consistent care standards were the top asks from direct care workers participating in the focus groups. Staff members said that barriers to achieving success in the direct care field included difficulty maintaining personal boundaries, the effects of work on their personal lives, and state regulations. 

“Arguably, the direct care worker shortage has reached crisis proportions with potential deleterious effects to those requiring higher levels of care,” the study concluded.