MANKATO — Rep. Jack Considine wants the state to give caregivers for the elderly and disabled a raise.

Considine, DFL-Mankato, will file legislation Thursday pushing for wage increases for personal care attendants and direct support professionals who work with vulnerable adults.

Under Considine's proposal, the state would allocate about $190 million for a 10 percent wage increase this year and another $95 million in 2018 for a 5 percent raise.

The bill comes as Considine and a caregiver advocacy coalition mount a statewide push to highlight workers' low wages and large-scale workforce shortages. Caregivers in Minnesota make between $11.50 and $12.22 per hour on average depending on their work, according to data compiled by the Government Accountability Office. Rural caregivers typically make less than similar workers in the metro area, however.

"These people are paid so poorly to begin with," Considine said.

These positions are paid through state human services reimbursements, which is why caregivers have sought wage increases from lawmakers in recent years. The Best Life Alliance, a coalition of caregiver groups, secured a 5 percent wage increase from the state in 2013 and a 2 percent increase in 2009.

Supporters say those increases aren't nearly enough to keep caregivers employed long term.

"You probably nowadays could get more working fast food," said Pam Gonnella, co-chair of the Best Life Alliance.

The coalition estimates a shortage of more than 8,700 caregivers statewide, with more to come over the next few years as baby boomers age into retirement. Members are pushing for a similar bill that would give a 4 percent increase this year, followed by another 4 percent increase in 2018.

The U.S. Census Bureau and the Minnesota State Demographic Center estimate more than 600,000 Minnesotans will turn 65 or older during the next two decades. At the same time, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development estimates the state's home health aide shortage will grow to more than 16,000 positions by 2022.

State auditors identified low pay and workforce shortages as future concerns in a report released Tuesday that showed the state Department of Human Services needed more financial oversight over home and community-based services. The Office of the Legislative Auditor reported state officials don't have enough data on caregivers to address issues and recommends the state collect more information on direct care staff in the future.

Jo Vos, a project manager with the Office of the Legislative Auditor, told lawmakers at a House health and human services committee Tuesday that data were necessary for the state to address Minnesota's workforce shortages. Yet she also noted auditors found many companies struggling to find and keep workers.

"Some of them told us that they have a hard time competing with the SuperAmerica down the street who get paid basically the same wage but (for) work that's a whole lot easier," Vos said.

Those shortages have caused some companies to close area homes for people with disabilities. Habilitative Services runs several homes in south-central Minnesota, including in Mankato, but company officials closed a home in New Ulm in part because they couldn't staff it — Habilitative Services has a 40 percent turnover rate among its caregivers.

"We lag behind in wages as an industry," said Curt Bossert, regional administrator with Habilitative Services. "It's a challenging yet rewarding job, but we just need a higher wage for direct support professionals."

A majority of lawmakers signed on to a wage increase bill last year, but efforts to increase caregiver pay went nowhere after lawmakers failed to include the bill in budget discussions. As a result, Considine lambasted his colleagues in a speech at the end of the 2016 session. He said he's pushing a 10 percent increase in part because he doesn't want the same thing to happen this year.

To that end, he has also begun campaigning his colleagues by sharing letters from caregivers compiled by the Best Life Alliance.

"I'm sending out an email a day to a different district every day, both Democrat and Republican, to say 'This is a person from your district,'" he said. "I think it really needs to have a human face put on it. It's really easy to dismiss an unknown group of folks, but if you're looking at an email from one of your constituents, it's hard to ignore."

Considine and caregivers agree a wage increase this year won't be enough to attract more workers, but they say it's a start to finding a permanent increase schedule in the future.

"This isn't a crisis that's going to be solved by one session, really," Gonnella said.

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