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As baby boomers age, there is more need for home health care workers to take care of them. That workforce is one of the country's fastest growing but it's also one of the lowest paid. Turnover is high, and there are fears of a labor shortage. NPR's Jennifer Ludden has this story on efforts to make the job more attractive.
JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: In a Bronx high-rise, two dozen women are training to be home care workers. On one side, a student pretends to be a bedridden client while another gently stretches her limbs.
MARIA SOTO: Separate the leg, holding it the same way.
LUDDEN: Assistant trainer Maria Soto coaches them through it.
SOTO: Roll it in. Roll it out. OK.
LUDDEN: This extensive, month-long program distinguishes Cooperative Home Care Associates, along with the vision of the agency's President, Michael Elsas.
MICHAEL ELSAS: We think that our workers are ready to use some of the newer technology, you know, the smartphone type of technology.
LUDDEN: He says they could monitor and record things, like changes in a patient's skin color, cutting down on doctor's visits, even hospitalizations.
ELSAS: Which would lower the cost of healthcare, have a dramatic effect on the cost of healthcare.
LUDDEN: And which Elsas hopes would have a dramatic effect on how much society values home health workers. Right now, many get no training at all. And with a median wage under $10 an hour, it's hard to call this a career. Cooperative trainee Mary Miranda will earn even less than she did in retail.
MARY MIRANDA: It's not much, but like I said, it's a stepping stone. Sometimes you got to just take it as it goes and make the best out of everything.
LUDDEN: Advocates say one big problem is a decades-old law that exempts home care workers from federal minimum wage and overtime, likening them to babysitters. Elsas says this drags down wages across the field. A year ago, President Obama proposed a rule to end the exemption, but that's on hold.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: On three - one, two, three...
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: DCA.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And again...
LUDDEN: A few weeks ago, the Direct Care Alliance sponsored a Washington, D.C. lobbying day. Several dozen home aides posed for a photo, then headed to Capitol Hill to make their case for better pay. Tracy Dudzinski had traveled from Wisconsin.
TRACY DUDZINSKI: When I'm in home care, I'm a doctor. I'm a nurse. I'm a cook. I'm a dietician. You name it, we do it.
LUDDEN: Over 16 years, Dudzinski says she's seen her duties grow more complex as people live longer and hospitals release patients sooner after surgery.
DUDZINSKI: We have to watch for if they're having a reaction to medication. Sometimes we're doing some basic wound care. I took care of a gentleman who was a quadriplegic.
LUDDEN: Wisconsin, like 20 other states, overrides the federal exemption on minimum wage, but Dudzinski says the highest wage at her agency is still under $11 an hour and starting pay has been going down.
DORIE SEAVEY: In a typical supply/demand situation, if demand is greater than supply, then wage rates would rise to clear the market.
LUDDEN: But supply and demand don't really work when it comes to home care aides, says Dorie Seavey of the Paraprofessional Health Care Institute.
SEAVEY: One of the biggest things that their wage rates are tied to are public reimbursement rates.
LUDDEN: Namely, Medicaid. And a number of states have been cutting that to balance budgets. But Seavey says paying less to home aides doesn't necessarily save public money. About half of home care workers are in households so poor they themselves rely on public benefits, like food stamps and Medicaid. Even in privately paid home care, there's pressure to keep wages low.
PAUL HOGAN: There's a fine line between what seniors are willing to pay for our services before they opt for other alternatives.
LUDDEN: Paul Hogan heads Home Instead. The national home care agency starts workers at $9 an hour, though charges clients at least twice that. Hogan says a higher rate could push seniors to hire someone outside an agency.
HOGAN: It leaves the senior much more exposed to risk such as fraud and abuse.
LUDDEN: Worker advocates say such fears are overblown. Home Instead has lobbied especially hard to keep the labor exemption on overtime. Hogan says many aides log long shifts spending the night with clients.
HOGAN: If the overtime would apply to these situations, it would drive some clients' bills up by, you know, 20 to 30 percent. And this just makes it out of reach for them.
LUDDEN: But advocates say clients can avoid overtime by using two aides to trade off night shifts. A recent study also finds home health care is one of the most profitable franchises in the country and growing fast.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I fill in for tomorrow, Thursday and Friday, correct?
LUDDEN: Back at Cooperative Home Care Associates, a room full of schedulers work to match clients with aides.
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LUDDEN: Demand is set to soar with baby boomers overwhelmingly wanting to age in their own home. The hope is that enough people will want the job of caring for them. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.