Report: Competition with Massachusetts hampers private social service employment

Many workers looking to find more lucrative state employment

BOSTON (State House News Service) – Many social service providers recruit people from other countries to fill vacancies in Massachusetts, though with relatively low wages those private agencies have trouble holding onto their workers and wind up serving as a pipeline for more lucrative state employment, according to a report set for release Tuesday.

In the decade that began in 2014, human service job openings are “conservatively” projected to increase by 24,000 to 25,000, according to a report by the Massachusetts Council of Human Service Providers, which warned that the sector is “at the precipice of a workforce crisis.”

Private organizations around Massachusetts do social service work on behalf of the state, caring for people with developmental disabilities, mental illness, and people who are homeless or poor. The work is “physically and emotionally demanding” while the pay-scale for direct support professionals and personal care aides is “comparable to those working in retail or hospitality.”

Demand for services is increasing with an aging population, higher rates of autism and veterans returning from overseas, according to the council.

“These trends are creating a series of downward spirals that are compounding the problem,” said Providers Council President and CEO Michael Weekes, in a statement. “Prolonged vacancies are creating stress and burnout, leading to reduced productivity and more turnover. Desperate efforts by providers to recruit and retain employees are draining scarce resources that could otherwise go toward wages.”

Better paying government jobs in the social service fields siphon off workers from the provider organizations, according to the report.

“Often times, community-based human services organizations feel as if their agencies are a career pipeline for future state employees. Young workers with little or no experience take positions in human services for a short period of time before leaving to work for a state agency, such as the Department of Children and Families or the Department of Developmental Services,” said the report. “Most state jobs can offer better pay and benefits packages with more paid leave, better or lower cost health insurance, and retirement plans. Essentially, this means that human services employers carry the financial burden of recruiting and training young workers to ready them for state government positions.”

Perennially tight budgets, caused by tepid increases in state tax revenues and growing demand for state dollars from Medicaid, could temper efforts by state policymakers to push more money toward the private providers.

“It’s only going to get worse unless we do something and we have the opportunity to do something right now,” Weekes told the News Service, saying there is a “perfect storm” of increasing demand for social services and difficulties recruiting and retaining workers.

The report compared job postings, including a caseworker for a provider in Worcester with an estimated annual salary of about $36,000 and a Pittsfield-based Department of Children and Families social worker position that pays between about $51,000 and $70,000 per year.

The study commissioned by the council was written by the UMass Donahue Institute and the Public Policy Center at UMass Dartmouth. Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Ronald Walker, Jamaica Plain Rep. Liz Malia and others plan to discuss the findings at 2 p.m. in the State House.

With the state’s unemployment rate at 2.8 percent in December, and the national rate at 4.8 percent in January, some human services employers are looking for job candidates outside the United States.

Of the employers surveyed for the study, 18 percent reported recruiting foreign-born workers living outside the United States and close to half said they are recruiting recent immigrants.

The Providers Council noted that in a Feb. 3 letter to U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly about the Trump administration’s immigration stance, Gov. Charlie Baker said 25 percent of direct care workers are foreign born.

“Direct care service providers will not be able to meet the current or future need for workers without relying in part on a foreign-born workforce,” the governor said, reporting that 10.5 percent of those workers have green cards or work permits.

Seventy one percent of the employers surveyed blamed low wages for a lack of applicants, while 18 percent believe too few Massachusetts residents are seeking employment.

In 2015, the Baker administration settled a lawsuit with social service providers, pledging to bring the salaries of socia workers in line with the requirements of a 2008 law, which Weekes said had a “positive effect.” He said about 10 percent of the state’s population receives assistance from the social service sector.

The report said providers “question why state government contracts with human services do not offer reimbursement rates that mirror their own salary scales,” and quoted one unidentified employer as saying, “Don’t steal our employees with higher rates of pay. We are not in the position to simply raise taxes to compete.”

Weekes said payments for social service providers should be “benchmarked” to the salaries paid to similar state workers, and he suggested including private social service workers in the Group Insurance Commission, which provides health coverage for public employees.

In addition to advocating additional funding so that social service providers can offer “commensurate” salaries, the report suggested the development of a “clear path” for millennials to enter the field, support for loan forgiveness for social workers, and guidelines to make it easier for providers to recruit and retain foreign-born workers.

The report also recommended funding for government mandates, such as fingerprinting, and said providers “repeatedly noted that the process of completing background checks on potential hires was so cumbersome that applicants often found other employment before the process was complete.”