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Op-Ed: Alabama’s federal COVID relief funds could help unsung healthcare heroes

By Candi Williams, AARP Alabama State Director

Frontline healthcare workers have been hailed as heroes during the COVID pandemic, and deservedly so. As many of us did our part by wearing a mask or simply staying home, these nurses, doctors and healthcare professionals put themselves on the line as they cared for the most severely ill patients in packed hospitals and intensive care wards. 

But there are other healthcare heroes who also performed admirably during the pandemic and whose contributions were largely unsung. I’m talking about direct care workers who continued throughout the pandemic to care for our seniors and citizens with disabilities in private homes, group homes and other small residential settings. These workers also deserve our accolades – and more.

AARP Alabama is joining with many others in urging Governor Kay Ivey to use federal COVID relief funds to provide hazard or hero pay to these deserving workers. In doing so, Alabama would follow the lead of several other states, including North Carolina and Virginia, as well as several Alabama cities, using federal COVID-19 relief funds for hazard pay, and would acknowledge the real contributions made by direct care workers during the pandemic.

If you’ve relied on direct care staff, for yourself or your loved ones, you know the important role these workers can play in preserving dignity, providing emotional support, and meeting the everyday needs of seniors and people with disabilities. Direct care workers may help their clients dress, bathe, eat, and go to the bathroom, and they may assist with many other household needs.  If it weren’t for direct care workers, many seniors and people with disabilities would be unable to stay in their homes. 

As AARP has documented over many years, these workers tend to be disproportionately female, minority and part of a low-income household themselves. In Alabama, almost 30,000 people are part of this workforce, providing care in their community to individuals who need help because of their age or their physical, developmental, intellectual, or mental disabilities. 

But despite the valuable and often difficult service these workers provide, it’s not reflected in their paychecks. In Alabama, the median wage for home health or personal care aides is $9.21 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Because the work is typically part time and there may be lulls as clients come and go, the median income for home care workers in the U.S. totals less than $17,200 a year, according to PHI.

While direct care workers in institutional settings often received hazard pay during the pandemic, most of those working in private homes and community settings did not. Alabama could fix that. Hero or hazard pay – which, depending on the formula, might be about $1,500 per worker – would be a small price to pay to acknowledge their services and their contributions during this time. 

This one-time sum would not address the fundamental problems associated with low pay for direct care workers. The reality is that people can often find less demanding jobs that pay more. As a result, those who rely on assistance from direct care workers live with the worry and threat created by high turnover in the field. That is a more basic issue that we need to address as a society. 

Right now, these valuable workers deserve to be thanked and recognized as the heroes they are – and to receive a financial reward for the risks they have faced. We urge Governor Ivey to provide Alabama’s direct care workers with a tangible reward for their hard work and dedication to Alabama’s seniors and people with disabilities.

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