/Low wages force state employees to find new jobs

Low wages force state employees to find new jobs

The hardest hit department is the Department of Mental Health. There are approximately 2,900 direct care workers among its 7,147 employees. The department’s turnover rate is 49%, which is the highest among state agencies. Kelly Breland is the director of the Bureau of Administration at the Department of Mental Health. She asked legislators to raise salaries for these workers. They are the “heart” of mental health department. Breland stated that they are like their older sister or brother to these people. He said that direct care workers are trained in recognizing signs of aggression and de-escalation for emotionally unstable patients. However, they also perform everyday tasks like taking patients to appointments, helping them to interact with others, and brushing their teeth. Breland stated that direct care workers can do anything with patients. They make sure everything goes smoothly. The Wednesday sessions were conducted by the Legislature’s tax and budget groups. They are designed to evaluate the state’s fiscal structure and 13 state agency budgets. They also addressed personnel issues. The legislators also heard from the Departments of Health and Mental Health. Last month, the working groups met for the first time with officials from state agencies. The salaries of direct care workers in the mental and health agencies are amongst the lowest paid state employees. The 12-month-long course is completed and the trainees are promoted as a direct care worker, earning $17,409. They can also become certified nursing assistants. This training makes it easier to find higher-paid positions in the private sector. They do, and they often do. According to Bo Chastain (the hospital’s director), more than 62% of Mississippi State Hospital’s direct care workers leave within their first year of employment. In an exclusive interview with Mississippi Today, Chastain stated that this is the highest turnover rate for any position in state government. And with turnover, that’s the thing. You tend to always be training mode. Chastain stated that the newly-trained employees are also training new employees. “When there’s 62 percent turnover, that means that the majority of people at work are learning their job.” He said it’s been difficult to combat the high turnover in direct care staff. “I believe it has gotten worse over the last few years, as their salary is becoming less and less competitive.” Wednesday’s legislative budget sessions saw the Department of Mental Health distribute sheets with the State Personnel Board annual salary realignment recommendations. These figures are based upon the public sector wages of Mississippi and neighboring states. In Tennessee, the starting salaries for direct-care workers are $19,440, and in Arkansas, they are $20,788. The realignment recommendations would see the Mississippi salary for direct care trainees rise to $18,283, and the Mississippi salary for direct care workers rise to $20,020. This is an increase of $2384 and $2614, respectively. It is also expensive to train new employees. According to the Department of Mental Health, turnover can cost the department anywhere from $2,300 to $2,600 per employee. Angela Dupree is the director of nursing at Jaquith Nursing Home. She says that turnover also affects the quality of the care the agency can provide to its patients. Turnover is a problem because once direct care workers establish a relationship with the patient, they often leave. Dupree stated that dementia affects many of our residents and that if that bond is broken, it can be difficult to get them back. These are people who forget about their families. She said that her (direct care workers are) always there. “They connect with them. It may be that it smells like their mother 100 years ago, or it might not, but it’s familiar.” According to Chastain, Dupree, the low salaries reduce the number of applicants for the job. Direct care workers work with patients who can be emotionally volatile. It can be stressful and Chandler stated that it is difficult to get good trainees. “A high-quality person will usually have a family and they won’t be able to make it on this salary,” Dupree explained. Dupree stated that 60% to 70% of certified nursing assistants and direct care workers she supervises work part-time jobs to make ends fit. Wendy Bailey, the director of public information for the Department of Mental Health, repeated this statistic during Wednesday’s budget sessions. Mary Currier, state health officer, said that similar problems are being faced by the Department of Health with its nurses and nurse practitioners. She suggested that the department might increase salaries to hire fewer highly-qualified staff members, if funds are not increased. This idea was brought up by Philip Gunn, Speaker of the House. Gunn asked, “I wonder, then. Could one good person do three average jobs?” “Yes, sir. Currier replied, “Well, maybe two (people). “If we could offer better salaries to our employees, that would be great. This would be a great help. Another issue is funding. Currier stated, “The problem is that almost everyone who works in the health department gets paid at a very low rate. So you have to take a look at each category.” The competitiveness of salaries was also the focus of discussions between legislative work groups and Department of Human Services and Child Protective Services. John Davis, the executive director of Department of Human Services, stated that the department’s 13. percent attrition rate is due to low wages compared to the private sector. Davis stated that millennials are also coming in, but they only stay for a year or two before moving on. They are not being put down by this. “Our salaries are not as high as they would be in the private sector.” Child Protective Services had requested more money from the Legislature to increase salaries in the department. The agency said it was successful. David Chandler, Commissioner of Child Protective Services, stated that they asked the Legislature for funds to pay competitive salaries. “Now, you know that it is hard work so some people may not last, but I think this pay is fair.” According to Kristi Plotner, deputy commissioner of Child Protective Services, the department has filled 237 out of 285 new positions. Plotner stated, “So we are ahead of schedule.” To support this work, you can make a regular donation to us today as part of the Spring Member Drive. This will allow us to continue important work such as this story. Our reporters give a human face to policy’s impact on everyday Mississippians by listening more closely and understanding their communities. To ensure that our work is aligned with the priorities and needs of Mississippians, we are listening to you. Click the button below to let us know what you think. 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