Hiring Freeze

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If you’re looking for a job in this down economy, you might try the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services. The state agency—known commonly as DADS—needs to hire a lot of people to care for mentally disabled Texans, and it’s struggling to fill the jobs. Without more employees, the department could have trouble reducing abuse and improving care.

DADS operates 13 large institutions for Texans with mental retardation. The facilities once were called state schools, though the Legislature recently changed the name to the even fuzzier “State Supported Living Centers.” Whatever you call them, the facilities house some of the most vulnerable Texans—those with low IQs and some who can’t care for themselves.

State schools can be violent places. Scandalous reports of abuse and mistreatment in the facilities have been circulating for three years, including horrific stories of unexplained deaths, beatings and neglect. One cause of the mistreatment—though not the only one—is short staffing. So the past two sessions, the Legislature has provided funding for DADS to hire a combined 2,850 additional workers.

The first round of hiring began in 2007, when DADS was slated to add 1,690 workers. Two years later, it still hasn’t filled all those positions. The agency is about 300 workers short of the 2007 target, says Cecilia Fedorov, a DADS spokesperson. She says the agency has had trouble hiring nurses and other medical professionals.

The second round—approved in the 2009 session—requires DADS to add another 1,160 state school employees. That’s part of a legal settlement with the U.S. Justice Department, which investigated Texas’ state school system and has threatened litigation if conditions aren’t improved.

Viewed in a wider context, the state schools are still dangerously short-staffed. The facilities have high turnover rates (half of all direct care workers, the people who care for the patients most frequently, leave after one year). Because of high turnover, retirements and firings for abuse, the system has been losing workers nearly as fast as it’s been adding them. The state schools have hired 1,400 workers since 2007, but because so many have left, the net increase in staff has been only 600, according to DADS figures. For instance, since 2007 the staff at the Corpus Christi school—where workers forced patients to make an infamous “fight club” video last year—has grown by only nine workers. That’s an increase of 1 percent.

The state school system employs roughly 11,900 people now. If and when hiring is completed, the total should be about 14,000. There’s a long way to go.

Caring for the severely mentally disabled is a demanding job that’s not for everyone. Some people aren’t cut out for it, which is one reason turnover is so high. Critics of state schools point to another problem: low pay. State school workers are among the lowest-paid state employees. The starting salary for a base-level direct worker is about $19,000. That salary sometimes attracts low-quality employees who were recently delivering pizzas.

DADS requested a 10-percent pay raise for state school workers this past legislative session, but lawmakers refused. That decision could seriously hamper reform efforts. If DADS continues to have problems attracting and retaining staffers at state schools, it’s unlikely the conditions at these facilities will improve.

Dave Mann is a former editor of the Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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