A Hiring and Retention Nightmare
In a 2022 job outlook, there are far more openings than there are job seekers and the industry’s hiring, and retention rates seem to be at an all-time low.
The job of a direct care staff member at an average residential operation is a hard one. It comes with all the usual challenges of having long hours, low pay, and a steep learning curve. But add to it the hard and, at times, disturbing work of lending around-the-clock care to our state’s most fragile children and the constant challenge of recruitment and retention becomes unsustainable.
The hope that vulnerable youth could be surrounded by highly trained and appropriately skilled staff is met with the worst crisis of retention in years.
In a time when most people, educated or not, can find well-paying work with a flexible schedule and even from the comfort of their couch, Texas’ residential child welfare operations are facing a unique hiring challenge.
Organizations like SAFE Alliance in Austin and Roy Maas Youth Alternatives in the San Antonio area are seeing much of the same. Both provide shelter, residential, and transitional living for youth and families.
SAFE Alliance Senior Director of Youth Residential Services Allison Susin says they have experienced as high as 60% staff turnover in the years since the onset of COVID-19. And Denise Sikes, Chief People Officer at Roy Maas says that their staff has decreased from 190 to 119 in the last year, triggering a subsequent capacity loss.
“It directly impacts who and how many youth we can serve,” Allison said.
Many residential operations have echoed these sentiments. Safety measures such as staff ratios (number of staff per child) mandated by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) can limit the number of intakes an organization can have.
Ratios are an important factor for child safety, and at times, organizations staff at even lower ratios than what’s required in order to safely meet the needs of the children in their care. But that means perfectly functional facilities (“beds” as it were) sit empty in the meantime. In fact, SAFE has a fully vacant cottage of 16 beds for pregnant or parenting teens and babies that simply cannot be staffed at this time.
“One of the biggest challenges is being able to attract clinicians, especially with all the changes in the mental health space. As a non-profit, we just can’t compete with for-profits and private practice.” Denise said.
And that’s why Roy Maas now serves 60 youth at any given time instead of the 100 they had capacity for in 2019.
What are they doing about it?
Both organizations have raised the base rate of pay and provide flexible schedules for direct care staff. And SAFE is issuing raises for employees who stay on past six months. Roy Maas is even providing a shift premium for staff who work the dreaded overnight shift.
Denise explained how necessary flexible scheduling has been for Roy Maas.
“We do our very best to accommodate the different needs. Many of our staff have a second job.”
Finding ways to make the job more practicable seems to help.
Outside of pay, SAFE Alliance has created more space for these staff to process and cope with their experiences on the job including an extensive Employee Assistance Program and access to group therapy.
Roy Maas is doubling down on employee recognition through staff appreciation days and even the creation of a “Culture Committee.” Their new CEO is passionate about building teams, developing positive culture and empowering the employees. The committee is being launched to include direct care staff in corporate decision-making. New staff are also more gracefully integrated into the work through extensive training and shadowing opportunities
Job readiness is an especially tall order at residential operations as the state requires dozens of hours of training on an array of topics. Sometimes the delivery and quality of the training can make all the difference. These organizations are hiring and training new and existing staff. The operational load of constant training can pull significant resources.
“Really, it’s more about keeping safe kids and safe staff. When you have staff working extremely long hours it’s not good for them. It’s not good for the kids and it’s not good for the staff,” Denise said.
Other organizations have found the addition of benefits and perks challenging as state law prohibits gifts for state employees and contractors over $50. Some providers wish they could give bigger gifts to show appreciation but feel hamstrung by the gift limits.
Melinda Cantu, Vice President of Child Abuse Prevention & Intervention Services at SAFE Alliance joked that where tech companies can shower staff with gifts, parties, and entertainment, some child welfare employers are proud of finally providing vending machines in the staff lounge.
What happens next?
In San Antonio, where Roy Mass is based, there’s no shortage of available remote jobs. Jobs that don’t require an employee to commute all over the city, and the availability of these jobs has exploded during the pandemic.
Denise isn’t hopeful that this tide will turn any time soon.
“Looking to the future, I think we’re going to continue to see upward pressure on wages.”
She continued, “We owe it to our people to be as competitive as we can. To provide the best benefits and the best place to work.”
Many reimbursement rates and contracts struggle to capture the true costs of care. When faced with inflation and the ever-changing needs of system-involved youth, it is harder than ever for service providers to compete for the right staff.
SAFE Alliance is reminded of this crisis every day. The 16 beds for pregnant or parenting teens and their babies remain unavailable today and for the foreseeable future.
“This has been, in my 30 years of working in HR, the most difficult labor market that I’ve seen,” Denise exclaimed.
She says that the saddest part of her job is seeing this issue weigh heavily on the staff. Job and life challenges have caused employees who love the work to say somber goodbyes as they find a lower stress job with sustainable income for their families.
Learn more about the TACFS policy priority around the Child Welfare Workforce.