Unless the Michigan Legislature acts to address a looming fiscal cliff by Feb. 28, our state’s families will lose the caregivers they rely on to help their loved ones with mental illness and developmental disabilities. It’s a disaster that’s completely avoidable — if only we can bring everyone to the table in time.

Since last June, Michigan’s direct care workers have been receiving a $2 hourly pay increase to help keep them on the job during the pandemic. It is an incentive that’s urgently needed, as the impact of COVID-19 is felt throughout communities across our state.

It is also an incentive that shouldn’t be limited to pandemics only. Michigan’s direct care workers receive an average starting wage of $11.44 per hour. Many do not receive any medical or other benefits.

So, given a choice between working retail or waiting tables for a starting wage of $12-$15 per hour, or doing much more physically and emotionally grueling work for less money, it is not difficult to see what most Michigan workers would do.

It’s what those workers already are doing. In fact, now that the temporary $2 hourly wage increase appears to be vanishing, many of these workers already have begun looking for new jobs.

The 100,000 vulnerable individuals these direct care workers support are about to be left on their own, along with the million or so state residents and job providers that depend on these caregivers’ daily work. It remains to be seen how our state’s families and employers will respond. One thing’s for sure — there’s about to be a whole lot of last-minute activity and economic juggling as people struggle to find workable solutions.

Employers are going to have to be flexible as their team members confront challenges at home. People who receive services — for whom stability and steadiness are often of particular value — are going to experience levels of change that will likely be uncomfortable, even detrimental.

All of these changes are going to happen within days of Feb. 28, unless our policy leaders act to extend the wage increase still further. In her State of the State message last month, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a proposal to make the $2 hourly wage increase permanent. It is our fervent hope this proposal is adopted by the Michigan Legislature over the long term.

But we also need action to address the immediate crisis our state’s families now face.

Michigan has federal resources in place that could be used to help extend this $2 hourly wage increase beyond Feb. 28. What’s needed now is immediate action to eliminate the looming fiscal cliff.

It has been written that a society’s worth is measured by how well it cares for the most vulnerable in its midst. Our direct care workers are doing their part for all of us; now it is time our state returned the favor and did its part for all of them.

We only have a few days left to get it right.

About the authors: Theresa Squires Metzmaker is the executive director and CEO of the Michigan Disability Rights Coalition.

Diann Dudash is the director of Programs and Advocacy for United Cerebral Palsy of Michigan.

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