Annette Wilson and her son Scott, 32, who is having to switch group homes because of closures and budget cuts. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The nonprofits that run adult group homes were supposed to receive a boost in state funding in January to increase pay for their workers. But the payments approved by the Legislature in 2021 never arrived, leading some homes to close their doors.

The Mills administration and Legislature are working to fix the problem – caused by an apparent oversight during the legislative process last year. In the meantime, the delay is causing disruptions in a financially fragile network of homes that serve some of the most vulnerable members of society, and in the lives of the residents who have been forced to leave.

“It’s not fair. I have to move out of a place I’ve been living in for seven years. I love where I live,” said Scott Wilson, 32, of Auburn, who has intellectual disabilities.

Wilson is moving from one group home in Auburn to another, although the new placement has not been finalized. The agency that provides the service, John F. Murphy Homes in Lewiston, had to close two group homes this year for financial reasons.

The Legislature and the Mills administration are working to fix the funding mistake. The crux of the problem is that the Legislature approved the reimbursement rate increase to set the wages of direct care workers at 125 percent of minimum wage, but didn’t fully fund the increases in the state’s budget.

Low wages for direct care workers have been a problem for years, pre-dating the pandemic. An overall worker shortage worsened as agencies were no longer able to pay more than a rising statewide minimum wage. That meant workers can snag much less challenging jobs and earn more money. Inflation and gas price increases are also affecting the ability to retain and attract workers.


Todd Goodwin, CEO of John F. Murphy Homes, said no one told nonprofits that the reimbursement boost wouldn’t happen in January. When the money didn’t come in, nonprofits were left scrambling when promised wage increases for employees didn’t go into effect. Communication between the Mills administration and nonprofit leaders about what was going on and whether the problem would be fixed was lacking, Goodwin said.

“When the law passed last year, everybody rejoiced. We were very happy, but then nothing happened,” Goodwin said. “We went from being very excited to very demoralized. The (Maine Department of Health and Human Services) was giving all kinds of excuses, and here we are again having to raise the issue again with the Legislature.”

Goodwin said he’s happy the problem appears to be on the way to being solved, but it should have never gotten this far.

A bill to resolve the problem has passed the Health and Human Services Committee and Jackie Farwell, Maine DHHS spokeswoman, said the Mills administration supports all of the fixes. It is expected to be passed by the House and Senate in the coming weeks.

The services are paid for out of Medicaid, called MaineCare in the state. About 2,500 people are employed in adult group homes, serving a population of about 1,500 adults with intellectual disabilities. In total, about 4,000 adults with intellectual disabilities receive some type of state services, such as day programs.

“In passing the biennial budget, the Legislature intended to ensure that MaineCare rates for a range of (home and community-based services) support 125 percent of minimum wage for direct care workers. However, the Legislature did not fully fund that part of the budget, leaving the department unable to implement the policy. Governor Mills has proposed to fix this through her supplemental budget to support these critical services for Maine people,” Farwell said in a statement.


Farwell said if the fixes are approved this legislative session, they would be retroactive to Jan. 1. Part of the solution involves tripling the amount of funding for Section 21 services – which includes group homes for adults with intellectual disabilities and other services – from $15.6 million to $46.4 million.

Laura Cordes, executive director of the Maine Association for Community Service Providers, which represents nonprofits that operate group homes, said they have seen a 27 percent loss of their workforce since the pandemic began, and at least 30 group home closures in the last 18 months.

“When people leave our workforce, we’re not seeing people come back or new people come into the field in order to maintain these services,” Cordes said. They are competing with Target and Burger King, which can often pay more for jobs that are less challenging, Cordes said.

This dynamic has affected Scott Wilson, not only because he has to move, but in the past year the worker shortage caused a lot of turnover in employees.

“This is a lot of upheaval for a population that as a whole doesn’t cope with change well,” said Annette Wilson, Scott’s mother.

Scott Wilson said when a close staff member left last year, he was emotional for weeks afterward.


“It was so hard on me. Every day and every night, I was on the phone with my mom bawling my eyes out,” he said. Wilson participates in Special Olympics, including running, long jump and shot put events, and enjoys outdoor activities like camping and fishing. He suffered a brain injury from a fall when he was 3 years old.

Many employees find the work challenging but rewarding, but say they need a job that can pay the bills.

Brook Smith, 25, of Westbrook works at a group home in Lewiston but said the cost-benefit analysis of staying at the job long-term is not adding up.

“I just really love it here, but it’s really difficult, especially the transportation costs with gas prices going up and pay not going up,” Smith said. “If we don’t get raises, I don’t think I can afford to stay here.”

Smith said she earns $12.15 an hour, but is getting a temporary $5 an hour boost in pay from federal COVID-19 relief funds that she knows are about to run out. Goodwin said COVID-19 money from the American Rescue Plan is paying for some temporary bonus pay, but that’s going to expire in April.

Maine’s statewide minimum wage increased from $12.15 to $12.75 per hour in January.


Katie Pulk, who manages two group homes for John F. Murphy Homes in the Lewiston area, said that it’s difficult to keep employees.

“The problem with these positions is that it fills your heart but not your pockets,” Pulk said.

Farwell said in addition to temporary pay increases from the American Rescue Plan, the Mills administration has also paid hiring and retention bonuses for direct care workers totaling $120 million, including group home workers and workers who serve home-based clients, such as elderly people who need help at home.

“The Mills administration has made unprecedented investments of state and federal funds into home- and community-based services. We hope that the Legislature will support the governor’s budget proposal to help ensure that Maine people of all ages can remain in their communities with the services and supports they need. We’ll continue to do all we can to strengthen services for these populations,” Farwell said in a statement.

Anna-Jean Alexander of Harrison, who is the guardian of a 51-year-old with intellectual disabilities, said he has had to move during the pandemic and has dealt with staff turnover because of the worker shortage.

“These are human beings that need to be taken care of,” said Alexander. “You can close a store if there’s not enough people coming to it. But you can’t close group homes, because these are human beings that need our care.”

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