Minimum wage isn’t much of a start to a career, particularly a career that’s hard on the back and keeps workers on their feet.
Schenectady County Community College is piecing together a career ladder for students who can’t afford to go to college but are searching for a way out of the minimum wage dead-end.
It starts with training for home health aides, who are paid $9 to $10 an hour. Then they can do coursework to become certified nursing aides, with pay ranging from $10.20 to $11 an hour.
That still wasn’t a living wage, said Tiziana Rota, who runs the SCCC program, but for students who had previously been unemployed, any wage is an improvement. But still, she wanted to place them on a path to a career with a living wage.
“That’s the idea of this entire program, to create steps,” she said.
Now, SCCC is adding a third rung to its nursing career ladder, and this step comes with a salary of up to $42,000 a year. It’s a relatively new position in the healthcare field: community health workers. They educate patients, provide case management and referrals to specialists, and try to teach underserved populations how to get the care they need.
This isn’t just a matter of finding a primary care physician for a new patient. Community health workers are trained to handle complex medical cases, the sorts of situations that often land people in emergency rooms because they can’t find the help they need until they hit a crisis.
That means community health workers need to speak other languages or be able to navigate the complex world of mental health care.
Particularly with Obamacare expanding the number of people with medical insurance and new rules penalizing facilities if a patient is readmitted with the same problem within 30 days, the need for workers who can handle community outreach is skyrocketing, said Matt Grattan, executive director of workforce development at SCCC.
“This is becoming very much an emerging national occupation,” he said.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects 25 percent growth in the career by 2022.
Stratton VA Medical Center in Albany has been using outreach workers for years to try to get patients seen before illnesses and diseases become too advanced.
“If you catch a problem before it’s a problem, it’s something that can be prevented,” said spokesman Peter Potter. “It’s nice to see it’s an idea that’s being adopted.”
He said the VA has discovered the investment pays off in better health.
“The key to it is continual interaction with the patients,” he said. “We want a patient that is involved in their health care. It’s shown when you’re involved in your health care, you’re more likely to do what your doctor or nurse says to do. You’re getting more buy-in.”
This year, SCCC got a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to provide free training in the profession. Ellis Healthcare has already hired three community health workers and will hire graduates from the class, said Erin Buckenmeyer, Ellis’ community health outreach coordinator.
She hopes graduates of the program will help Ellis build stronger relationships with patients, discussing their health and their needs.
“Having formal training supported by Schenectady County Community College is an exciting development in this emerging profession,” she said.
For student Jessica Dennison, the course is a way she can help parents lost in the world of serious mental health diagnoses.
“I have two mentally ill kids,” she said. “I had to do it all on my own. I didn’t know where to turn.”
She had to research options and resources herself while trying to take care of the kids and hold down a job. Now, she wants to help new parents in that situation.
“Now I can do that. Let me take some of that burden. You have enough,” she said.
Althea Prass-Johnson started taking the class because her work as a certified nursing aide was physically demanding.
“It’s on your feet, back and forth. It’s exhausting,” she said. “As I get older, I don’t want to stay in that position.”
Then she remembered a visitor after she gave birth to her daughter in New York City.
“Someone helped me,” she said. “She came to my house, she gave me referrals.”
She’s hoping she can do the same.
“I would love to work with expecting mothers or parents with children,” she said.
She could walk them through the maternity and pediatric worlds, which few adults are familiar with until they get pregnant, and help them get appointments and referrals to appropriate specialists. If they need other assistance, she could connect them to food pantries, help them get housing and advocate for them at the Department of Social Services, she added.
All of those skills are taught in the class.
Classmate Jamel Walton, a retired Marine, said she wants to work with veterans, “particularly returning veterans. It took me a good year and a half to actually get back to society and feel comfortable.”
In the class, she’s learning more about the programs available to veterans. She said she hopes it will soon be her job to share that information with other veterans, “getting them the help they need and getting their family the help they need, “I know what they’re going through.”
People like Walton are exactly who the job is for: people who have walked in their patients’ shoes.
“It’s about building rapport with the community,” Grattan said. “All the health facilities are looking at ways they can be more proactive. This just makes sense.”