Student loan repayment would help strengthen HS workforce Op-Ed by Senator Friedman, published in "The Provider"

Human service workers provide critical support to nearly one-in-ten Massachusetts residents, yet the industry continues to face enormous difficulties recruiting and retaining staff due to low wages and immense student loan debt.

These workers care for some of the most vulnerable members of our communities – the elderly, disabled and individuals suffering from mental illness and substance use disorder – who require assistance in daily living situations.

Social workers, psychiatrists, therapists, counselors and numerous other professions all fall under the human service worker umbrella. This diverse coalition of professionals is often required to provide the kind of holistic treatment and care needed by many of the most vulnerable members of our communities.

Through my own visits to facilities such as NuPath and Eliot Community Human Services, I have witnessed first-hand the impact human service workers have providing care and support to those in need. I hear frequently from constituents who rely on care from human service workers, and have seen in my own family how essential they are to improving the quality of life for loved ones.

As we continue to fight the scourge of deadly opioids in the Commonwealth, we too must recognize the indispensable role human service workers play on the front lines of the Opioid Crisis, saving lives daily and helping thousands on their path to recovery.

Their work is nothing short of essential.

Yet these positions, which frequently require costly advanced degrees and trainings, often offer starting salaries at $12 per hour, or less. In Massachusetts, the human service workers industry is nearly 80% female, many of whom are trying to support a family on low wages not commensurate with the value of their labor.

Saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, many human service workers find it nearly impossible to continue employment in the industry. Indeed, 75% of human service employers reported that they expect it to become increasingly difficult to fill job vacancies in the next three years.

We cannot afford to continue to lose this dedicated workforce.

These workers are committed to helping our family members and loved ones, and the demand for their valuable services is high. It is incumbent upon us as legislators to break down the barriers currently destabilizing the human service workers industry and threatening the health and welfare of our most vulnerable.

Last session, I joined my colleagues Senate President Karen Spilka and Senator Eric Lesser in championing a student loan repayment program for low-paid human service workers. Under this proposal, the state would repay qualified education loans at a rate not to exceed $150 per month (up to $1,800 annually) for human service workers working at least 35 hours per week, and earning less than $45,000 annually. This is a common-sense program providing essential financial supports that will help retain and attract human service workers. Though ultimately unsuccessful last session, this loan repayment program will again be a top legislative priority next session. But even more should be done.

Low provider reimbursement rates drive down the wages of human service workers. Supporting legislation to increase these reimbursement rates from insurers will make it easier for employers to pay higher wages, helping to attract and retain a robust human service worker industry.

The strength of our communities is reflected in how we treat our most vulnerable. Human service workers care for our loved ones with dignity and dedication on a daily basis. It is time we show them the same level of respect, and send a clear message that in Massachusetts we support workers who selflessly work to ensure that everyone may enjoy the quality of life they deserve.

Please join me in supporting these legislative initiatives, and let’s continue our vocal advocacy on behalf of this essential workforce and all those whom they help.

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