I can’t tell you how many employers advertising employment openings have called New Mexico Caregivers Coalition because they can’t find enough caregivers to fill the direct-care staff positions.

My staff and I receive multiple calls daily, asking for help recruiting caregivers. This fact will be no surprise to any person who has required a home-care worker any time in the last 18 months.

Caregivers may already have permanently left the direct-care field en masse, not just for higher-paying jobs, but also for better-quality jobs.

I’ve talked with New Mexico caregivers and employers across various industry sectors; both tell me low-wage workers have used the opportunity of the pandemic to train for jobs outside the home-care field so they can leave their current job.

A caregiver with children told me recently she permanently left her home-care job because child care is more expensive than the $10 per hour she earned. And, she accrued no benefits.

In Bernalillo, where our organization is based, the nearest McDonald’s franchise advertises starting pay at $11 per hour, vacation and sick leave, paid four-year college tuition and access to discounts for things like moving vans and rental cars to move to Bernalillo.

I, too, would take that job over one paying $10 an hour with no benefits.

Isn’t this the same conundrum we in the workforce development field were talking about more than 10 years ago? Indeed, more than 30 years ago?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics documents the average wage of a New Mexico home-care worker was $10.90 in 2009; in 2019, it was $10.92.

In New Mexico, 83 percent of caregivers are women, 82 percent people of color and 64 percent of caregivers live at poverty level.

A young man who works as a direct-support staff member for a person with a developmental disability told me, “I work 10 hours a day, five days a week, and I’m still poor!”

And the work is grueling. It is physically demanding; it involves lifting and transferring clients and even negotiating with family members who may or may not support that worker’s presence in the home.

Amazon, Facebook and even Walmart in New Mexico are offering $15 per hour and higher.

And if those jobs aren’t attractive enough, why not retrain as a truck driver to earn $25 per hour starting pay?

Lately, I find I have to refrain from encouraging caregivers and direct-support staff to leave the field for retraining for better-quality jobs.

Our organization shouldn’t advocate for caregivers to stay in this field. Advocates and supporters of caregivers ought to help push them toward those better jobs, not encourage them to remain in low-wage, low-quality jobs.

PHI projects that New Mexico will have to fill 75,500 new positions in home care and direct support by 2026. This present crisis means those who suffer most will be people who are elderly and those with disabilities who need their care.

(Adrienne R. Smith is president and CEO of the New Mexico Caregivers Coalition, based in Bernalillo.)