Sunday, July 26, 2009

Finding qualified employees for Texas institutions for intellectually disabled people could be difficult given the many existing unfilled positions

From The Dallas Morning News:

AUSTIN – A legal settlement with the U.S. Justice Department to prevent abuse and neglect inside Texas' state schools for the mentally disabled includes a clear directive: Hire nearly 1,100 new employees.

But that won't be easy. More than two years ago, lawmakers budgeted money to add 1,700 workers, and those positions aren't filled yet. With sky-high job turnover rates, low salaries and difficult work conditions, finding qualified employees – and keeping them – is a constant battle.

And when residents allege they've been mistreated, staff members must be reassigned, so it's even harder to keep a low resident-to-employee ratio.

"You'd think in the current economy, they would have no trouble filling these jobs, that there would've been an infusion of new employees," said Dennis Borel, executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities. "But the fact of the matter is, even having more bodies doesn't necessarily improve the culture."

Cecilia Fedorov, a spokeswoman with the agency that oversees the state schools, denied that the 1,700 jobs have been hard to fill. About 300 remain open, but she said the agency is on schedule to have all of the jobs filled by the end of the summer.

"We do expect to have the same success in filling the 1,100 positions that have been added as part of the Department of Justice settlement agreement," she said.

Advocates say that definition of success doesn't take into account the turnover that has already occurred. So far, officials with the Department of Aging and Disability Services have had to hire more than 2,100 people to fill the initial 1,700 jobs – and they're still short 300 employees.

Nearly 450 employees hired to fill these new jobs have already quit, close to 150 of them within their first three months on the job. And 290 of these new employees have been fired, for reasons including lying on their job applications and failing to show up for work.

Fedorov said that the firings and departures among these employees aren't unusual and that the agency always sees a high turnover rate during employees' first six months on the job.

"This is very challenging work, work not everyone is cut out for," she said. "It's not unusual to have a lot of people leave within their six-month probationary period."

But state Rep. Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs, said that if the state schools are going to meet the 30-1 resident-to-staff ratio outlined in the five-year, $112 million settlement agreement, they must improve on keeping employees. The agreement was signed this spring after a four-year federal investigation into civil rights violations at Texas' 13 state schools for the disabled, and years of media reports on abuse and neglect in the facility.

"I'm going to work very closely with them ... to make sure they're adequately and appropriately meeting the terms," said Rose, who helped push the settlement agreement through the Legislature.

Even when jobs are filled, it doesn't mean staffing problems don't exist. During a nearly four-week period this spring, 155 employees at the San Angelo State School were accused of abuse or neglect and had to be temporarily reassigned. Eighty employees from state schools across the state left their own shifts to rotate in for these employees, costing the state $28,000 in hotel rooms, per diems and other travel expenses. The San Angelo facility has more than 700 employees.

State school officials say that investigations are ongoing over these allegations, and that only one person has resigned over them. They say there is nothing out of the ordinary about the reassignments – every time an employee is accused of abuse or neglect, he or she must be temporarily removed from the job. Such employees are reassigned to other work in which they have no direct contact with residents, and they receive their regular pay, Fedorov said.

About 6.5 percent of abuse and neglect allegations are confirmed, though many more investigations are inconclusive. In 2008, nearly 9,000 allegations of abuse, neglect or exploitation were lodged throughout the state school system.

Some state school employees say the staffing problems are far more serious than agency officials make them out to be.

Residents with histories of making false allegations can clear out an entire shift for two weeks by making a single abuse claim, they said. Workers who don't get along will call in abuse and neglect claims against one another. Sometimes, the employees say, workers who simply want a few days off will call in false accusations against themselves, knowing the investigation will come back unconfirmed.

State officials say they have little evidence of such instances, and they have to take all abuse allegations seriously, regardless of whom they come from.

One longtime employee, who spoke only on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said other workers are forced to work 12- and 16-hour shifts to pick up the slack, unless the agency shuttles in out-of-town workers who aren't familiar with the residents.

"Even when all of our positions are filled, which is rare, there are still not enough people to provide quality services," the employee said.

State officials say that the agency continues to operate aggressive recruiting campaigns, and that the toughest hires – nurses and medical professionals – are in short supply across the country. They hope the addition of 1,100 new employees will cut down on the need for staff overtime, as well as allegations of abuse and neglect.

"As in any situation, if you have one person, one set of eyes there, that's good. Two or three are even better," Fedorov said. "It could potentially reduce the number of abuse, neglect and exploitation incidents."

Advocates say that's unlikely, particularly when entry-level employees could be making higher salaries working at Wal-Mart. Though lawmakers allocated hundreds of millions of dollars this legislative session to improve care for people with disabilities, state school employees will not see pay raises. Entry-level employees make about $22,000 annually.

"We've seen this before, an infusion of money and employees," said Borel of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities. "It hasn't ever been a long-term, substantiated solution."