Metro Detroit direct care workers struggle as pandemic burnout intensifies, wages stagnate

It was supposed to be over by now. The stress, the increased hours, and the constant chorus of unanswerable questions. Direct care worker Doris Howard once felt she could protect the people she assists. Over a year-and-a-half into the COVID-19 pandemic, she isn’t sure if she can protect herself. 

Howard is one of the 4.6 million direct care workers in the U.S. assisting individuals with long-term medical needs. Carers of older adults, carers of those with developmental disabilities, home-health aides, and nursing assistants are part of the demographic that works directly in-home or in larger facilities to provide daily support.

Doris Howard has been able to remain in her field of direct care work during the pandemic, but worries about the future of the industry.

As Michigan continues to record high numbers of COVID-19 hospitalizations, the extra strain is taking a toll on the industry. By March this year over 140,000 staff across the U.S. were infected with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Around 3,000 were hospitalized and nearly 600 had lost their lives. The risk of the pandemic, and low incentives, is increasing doubt among workers in an industry that was already battling alarming turnover rates.

“I don’t know, it’s just getting crazy out there. I wonder every time if I should still be doing this,” Howard says. 

Fear of the virus and notoriously low wages are a driving force behind staff shortages, a recent report from the University of Michigan shows, intensifying pressure on those remaining in the workforce. Approximately 42% of all direct care workers are on some form of public assistance and 15% live in poverty, according to the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute. Some workers are risking COVID-19 exposure for an average annual salary of roughly $28,000, only $4,000 more than an average fast-food worker for 2020.

Ferrari Griffin has witnessed the pressure put on direct care workers first-hand. Photo: Steve Koss.

Ferrari Griffin, an administrator at a group home in Wayne County, estimates that her workload doubled since the pandemic.

“Normally we have three staff per shift. At one point I had, like, 11 to 12 staff. Now, currently, I only have, like, five staff total and that’s including myself,” says Griffin, “I haven’t had a full-time afternoon person for over a year. I haven’t had a cook for over a year. They might come for a few months, then quit.”

Griffin has worked for her agency for over a decade. She works multiple shifts on top of her work as an administrator. Some nights she has to prepare dinner for nine people, pass medication, and complete clerical duties like payroll and scheduling. She also manages two smaller homes in the agency and faces the same struggles there.

It's her "love for the folks" that keeps her going. "I care for them like I care for my family," she says. "So, I don’t want to leave them at their lowest. Whatever I can do to help, that’s what I am here for. In order to do this work you got to look past the money.”

Not everyone can afford to do that.

Howard has worked for multiple healthcare providers in southeast Michigan for the last eight years. As a Black woman in her 60s, she fits the primary demographic of direct care workers in the U.S., where 86% are women, most are over 55, and 59% are people of color. The CDC reports that 69% of the population living in long-term care facilities are white. The racial divide isn’t invisible to staff.

Doris Howard at her mother's home in Detroit. Photo: Steve Koss.

“You see it every day," says Howard. "It’s always been like this. But this virus, it just makes you think about it more. You look around and only see people like us doing all the work. We’re risking our lives every day, but no one cares. It’s like we don’t matter."

Megan Loebl is one of many rethinking their options. Loebl started working in a long-term care facility over a year ago because she thought it would fit well with her schedule at school. By the start of October, she found herself infected with COVID-19 and forced to live in her car.

“My sister is immunocompromised,” Loebl says. “She doesn’t feel comfortable because I’m still stuffed up. I didn’t really have any place to go. My aunt doesn’t have space, and my grandparents don’t really have space either. Plus, I can’t risk them.” 

Loebl continues to struggle with the profession. She needs an income for studies but has become tempted with jobs outside of the field that have started raising pay rates. 

She isn't the only one asking questions about the future. The country will need an estimated 7.4 million direct care workers by 2029 to fill the workforce. To reach that goal, the field will need to recruit 3.2 million employees in seven years.

“It’s a mess,” says Howard. “I need the money, but no one wants to pay. There’s all this talk about COVID bonuses, but I haven’t really seen that. Maybe I’m just getting too old for this. I mean, who’s going to take care of me?”

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.