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Budget groups eye state agency personnel

JACKSON, MISS– Legislative budget groups comprised of senators and representatives from both parties evaluated the utilization and compensation of personnel for the Department of Health and the Department of Mental Health Wednesday.

These meetings were part of a series of budget group hearings that lawmakers will hold until the legislative session in January.

The discussion focused around issues of quality-over-quantity and flexibility in salary pay for the Department of Health.

MDH State Health Officer Dr. Mary Currier said that with nearly 15 percent of the department’s workforce in the field approaching retirement age in the next few years, not being able to compete with salaries draws concern in replacing those opening spots.

“To make up for budget holes,” said Currier. “We’ve closed nine clinics and reduced hours in 41 clinics.”

Currier said that another budget cut from the legislature could lead to another decrease in their workforce.

“If we get cut more, we’ll have to cut more people.” said Currier.

Competitive pay has continued to be an ongoing problem within MDH. Currier said many are lost to the University of Mississippi Medical Center, where an employee could make up to $20,000 more because UMMC does not fall under the state personnel board, which regulates hiring and salary.

The legislature would have to approve for the agency to be removed from under the state personnel board.

“If you were allowed to get out from under the personnel board,” asked Speaker of the House and hearing chairman Philip Gunn. “Would you agree that you could pay more for higher quality nurses?”

While Currier agreed, the flexibility of salary adjustment was not the only problem.

“We could have that ability and flexibility,” said Currier. “But the funding also has to be there.”

Speaker Gunn added that by paying more for higher quality workers, the nurse-driven agency could save money in the long run.

“Paying one great nurse $60,000 would save you more than paying two average nurses $40,000,” said Gunn.

Currier agreed with that notion as well, and said that it is the nurses and nurse practitioners that are the “boots on the ground” in the operations of MDH.

The Department of Mental Health was also questioned on personnel and compensation, with the focus set on the direct care workers within the agency. Direct Care workers are not necessarily licensed nurses; they help with de-escalating situations, bathing, feeding, administration of medication, and other services a family member may not be able to provide.

“They have a servant’s heart,” said Wendy Bailey with DMH. “It is the hardest and most stressful job with little pay.”

The starting salary for a Direct Care Trainee is $15,898 or $7.64 hourly. Upon completion of 90-day training, the salary is increased to $17, 408.94, or $8.37 hourly.

Bailey attributed the low pay for a large majority of the 49 percent turnover rate within the agency.

“These Direct Care workers come to us temporarily,” said Bailey. “Then they leave for something less stressful, like working in fast food, where they can often make more than they make with us.”

Bailey said oftentimes, the Direct Care employees work additional jobs to support their families.

Again the question of being removed out from under the state personnel board was discussed, but Bailey said the regulations from that board are only part of the problem.

“Having the flexibility would be great,” said Bailey. “But we’d have to have the funding to increase those salaries.”

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