Pandemic worsens home health aide shortage

  • Home health aide Elizabeth Davis was part of a video presentation shared at a recent legislative event hosted by LifePath on the topic of workforce crisis in home- and community-based care. SCREENSHOT

  • LifePath’s entrance at the Greenfield Corporate Center on Munson Street in Greenfield. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 1/19/2022 5:12:31 PM
Modified: 1/19/2022 5:11:26 PM

The home health aide shortage that’s existed for many years has only been exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, according to heads of local social service agencies.

“We serve over 1,000 customers in our home care programs, and of those, about 130 of them are waiting for services,” said LifePath Executive Director Barbara Bodzin. “That’s pretty significant, to have 13% of our cases unfilled. We’ve never had numbers that high, and that’s only people who are actively enrolled in our program.”

LifePath’s role, she explained, is to contract out to different vendors. The Greenfield-based organization provides an evaluation and assessment of an individual’s needs and then seeks out a vendor who can provide those services. LifePath also offers a program that allows clients to find and hire their own personal care attendants.

Farther east in Gardner, Elaine Fluet, president and CEO at Care Central VNA and Hospice, which also maintains a Greenfield office, has seen a similar decline in home health workers that’s worsened since the start of the pandemic.

“The consensus is the ability to meet the needs of all the requests has been very limited, because we don’t have enough home health aides,” she said.

Fluet said the shortage of aides before the pandemic was in part caused by providers being unable to pay home health workers rates that compare to those offered for other jobs and by larger companies.

“That existed before COVID, and of course, it’s been exacerbated,” she said.

Bodzin added that in general, the hours can be challenging and some people feel isolated working in an environment with just the person they’re caring for.

Fluet said many staff members, home health aides included, decided at the start of the pandemic they weren’t comfortable working in homes, and many of those workers haven’t returned.

“The loss of support has been so dramatically impactful, both on the consumer and on their loved ones to be out there dealing with the stresses and strains of taking on greater responsibility when the amount of support in the home is less,” Bozdin said.

Demand is up

The shortage coincides with a time when home and community-based services have become more sought after, she said.

“People, in general, want to age in place,” Bodzin said.

Springfield resident Elizabeth Davis, who primarily works in Greenfield, said in her 37 years as a home health worker, the most significant change she has experienced has been the growing demand for service.

“The work is more demanding because people are living longer and people want to stay in their homes,” said Davis, a home health aid at the South Hadley-based O’Connell Care at Home, which also has a location in Greenfield. Previously, families relied more heavily on nursing homes.

And yet, she noted, home health workers like herself have felt “invisible” and undervalued.

“Since the pandemic, we are more valued,” she said. “We are classified as essential workers. Even though the pandemic was there, we still had to go out and take care of our clients.”

Davis, acknowledging a recent pay increase from her own employer, said that across the board, home health aides deserve pay that matches their value.

“The reason we can’t get aides is because they are not paying enough,” she said. “They are in competition with Dunkin’ Donuts or McDonald’s, because they are paying much more than home health care agencies.”

Despite the challenges presented by workforce shortages and the pandemic itself, Davis — who has known since she was a little girl that she wanted to help people — has stuck with it for the same reason she got into the field.

“I’m a caregiver, and I’m driven to take care of people,” she said. “I love people, and I want to make sure they are cared for.”

Addressing the shortage

Efforts have been made at the state level to address the shortage, with recent attention given to the issue at a legislative event hosted by LifePath, citing the “workforce crisis,” that brought together legislators, elder care service providers and home health workers.

“It’s been a very, very difficult time,” Bozdin said. “On the other hand, there’s never been so much attention toward the fact there are inherent problems — low pay, lack of job security, lack of benefits, lack of professionalism that has been attached to these workers who … do phenomenal, critical work.”

Fluet said organizations can only pay a fair amount if they are reimbursed a fair amount.

“There has been lobbying on the state level to Medicaid to increase our rates,” she said. “They cannot expect agencies like ourselves to subsidize the care of their members. Those are the most vulnerable people.”

And while COVID-19 relief funds have been allocated over the past two years, Bozdin said it won’t be sustainable long term.

“The money is there for the here and now, but the vendors don’t have that assurance the money is going to be there long term to sustain higher rates,” she said.

Bozdin noted attention has also been brought to the need to raise home health workers to a more professional status.

“I have to stay hopeful,” Bozdin said. “I’ve been in his work for 35 years, and it’s the most challenging time I’ve experienced because of the workforce shortage, and at a time when informal caregivers are not around.”

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.

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