By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
Since 2019, 1,411 people have been hired into the child welfare division of the Alabama Department of Human Resources.
And 1,580 have quit.
Separations have increasingly outpaced hires across DHR since 2019, but especially among those who are charged with protecting children and teens.
In July, the child welfare division hit a turnover rate of 54%, DHR Commissioner Nancy Buckner told a panel of lawmakers Thursday at an informal State House budget hearing. General Fund budget committee members have heard from a variety of state agencies this summer about budget and staffing issues and how increases in inflation are impacting them.
Buckner said in 2007, the agency had about 4,500 employees. Now it has about 3,700.
“I really need about 4,100 to 4,200,” Buckner said about the agency that also oversees state programs for food assistance, child support, child care and adult protective services.
Staff members leave DHR because they can make more money elsewhere and many entities are competing for the same pool of workers, Buckner said. And specifically in child welfare, the nighttime hours often required and the nature of the job that can require removing children from unfit homes make positions hard to fill.
State social workers visiting home situations have been physically attacked, bitten by dogs and had weapons drawn on them. A DHR supervisor sustained permanent injuries after being hit by a car, Buckner told lawmakers. The number of court cases —36,000 last year — involving the agency are also a challenge for retention, Buckner said.
In order to try to keep child welfare workers, DHR in recent years has offered $4 an hour for workers to be on call, given them access to leased vehicles and increased salaries.
A starting DHR social services caseworker earns $35,985 per year and a starting social worker earns $37,785, according to DHR.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, told Alabama Daily News he “absolutely” supports targeted pay raises within DHR.
“It can be physically and emotionally draining to be a social worker,” Orr said on Thursday. “Certainly, they need to be compensated.”
Staffing issues are plaguing other state agencies. Barry Matson, executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, on Thursday told lawmakers about high caseloads and low staffing. There are 278 full-time assistant DAs in the state.
“That number needs to rise,” he said. “We can’t find people to take these positions.”
Senate General Fund Budget committee chairman Greg Albritton, R-Range, said salaries at several agencies will need to be addressed in the 2023 legislative session.
“We’ve got DHR with their low salaries and difficult circumstances,” Albritton told ADN. “We’ve got (the Alabama Department of Mental Health) with not just contractors but employees trying to serve that population. And we’ve got staff shortages among corrections officers. And that’s just the beginning of it.
“… There are some needs that we’re going to have to pay attention too.”
Orr also said social workers’ personal security is a concern. He said he’s encouraging DHR to look into hiring retired law enforcement officers to escort social workers on home visits and other calls that could be potentially dangerous.
The state’s 2022 fiscal year ends this month General Fund revenues are up 8% year-to-date, lawmakers were told by Kirk Fulford, deputy director of the Legislative Services Agency’s Fiscal Division. The Education Trust Fund is up a decades-high of 20%.
“That’s so abnormal, it’s not even in the ballpark of normal growth,” Fulford told lawmakers and again warned that much of that growth has been a result of a “mountain of federal cash” in the form of COVID-19 relief.
Fulford this summer has consistently warned state budget makers that if there is a significant downturn in the economy, it will be felt first in the education budget’s revenue streams, the largest of which are income and sales taxes.
“It will show up here in people’s paychecks and what they can and cannot buy at the end of the day,” Fulford said.