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Pa. offers incentives for care workers

| Sunday, March 10, 2002

At the urging of government and social service agency officials in Butler County and across the state, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare is freeing money in hopes of keeping direct care workers on the job.

Workers who provide care directly to clients of mental health and mental retardation facilities, home health agencies and adult day care centers will receive salary increases or bonuses as part of the effort.

"It's no huge windfall," warned Butler County Commissioner Joan Chew.

But, "it's a start," said Lorraine Widener, fiscal director for the county's Human Services, which oversees the county's mental health and mental retardation agencies.

For instance, each of the 28 full-time employees at the Irene Stacy Community Mental Health Center in Butler Township, who provide direct care to patients at group homes as part of a contract with Butler County, will receive a $1,394 increase in their salaries.

Randy Georgic, controller of the Irene Stacy Community Mental Health Center, said the money is a much-needed shot in the arm.

"We're having more problems than ever in the (social services) industry in recruiting people to work in the system," Georgic said.

The average salary for a direct care worker at the center's group homes is about $14,000 a year, Georgic said. The center relies primarily on state and federal funding to operate, although clients pay on a sliding scale, depending on their circumstances.

The retention and recruitment funding is an important incentive at a time when direct care workers are tempted to leave for jobs at places such as McDonald's restaurants and Costco and Lowe's stores, Georgic said.

"We do lose a lot of staff to those (places) … We do compete with those places for employees," he said.

Those jobs usually pay better, he said, and they also do not require as much of employees, he said. A direct care worker, for instance, is required to have an annual physical examination and routine testing for certain illnesses and diseases, Georgic said.

"And there's a lot of expectation about what they do with clients and what they do on the job," he said.

Residential workers are responsible for overseeing the daily activities of group home clients. That includes everything from helping clients prepare meals to shopping and ensuring clients arrive at doctor's appointments, as well as helping them with leisure activities.

Group home clients are diagnosed with mental illness, Georgic said. While they don't require inpatient hospitalization, they also are not capable of living alone in the community.

Most of the 28 employees who will benefit from salary increases work in one of three group homes operated by the Irene Stacy Community Mental Health Center. A handful of other employees provides services to those clients, as well as other mental health clients in the county.

Altogether, $45,946 is being freed by the state Department of Public Welfare for mental health workers in the county, said Ann Brown, the human services finance director. Another $349,016 will be divided among direct care workers who provide mental retardation services to the county.

Brown said officials with the county and agencies providing mental retardation services still are trying to determine how to distribute the money. There are 250 employees eligible to benefit from the funding program, she said.

Brown said state Department of Public Welfare officials have been under fire for a long time from county government officials and social service agencies that want help with retaining and recruiting direct care workers.

State officials say money will be provided annually to help with direct-care workers salaries, Brown said.

"We think it really will help to keep people in these positions and to look at these positions more as a career option instead of as a temporary position," said Georgic.

It is important to maintain continuity in staffing in group homes, he said. Clients become uncomfortable when there is a constant turnover of staff, he said.

Another $25,136, in retention and recruitment funding will be spent by the county's Area Agency on Aging. The agency last year developed a plan to spend the money, although funding was not freed until this month, agency director Lisa Monday said.

Because of the different organizations that work with the aging agency, Monday said, she and her staff decided to use the money for a combination of salary bonuses, as well as promotional activities and training.

For instance, Personal Touch Home Aides, based in Pittsburgh, with an office in Butler, is planning an advertising campaign to attract new workers to the southern part of the county.

Maria Berzonski, the agency's program coordinator, said finding people to work in Cranberry, Evans City, Seven Fields and Zelienople has been an uphill battle. Potential employees can go to some retail stores and make $10 an hour just stocking the shelves, she said.

Along with the ad campaign, Personal Touch Home Aides also will provide bonuses to some employees, Monday said. That includes a $250 sign-on bonus and a $125 retention bonus for existing direct care employees, she said.

Meanwhile, ConcordiaCare in Cabot plans to develop a shadowing program, she said. It's geared at promoting "a positive image of the position of the direct care worker," Monday said.

Concordia Lutheran Ministries in Cabot will boost training to make employees more comfortable with their jobs, she said.

A mix of sign-on and retention bonuses will be used by Lifesteps in Butler Township to help keep existing employees and attract new ones, Monday said.

Direct care workers who have been employed there three to 24 months will receive a $200 bonus, employees with 25 to 84 months service will get a $350 bonus and employees with 85 months or more of service will get a $750 bonus, she said.

Monday said she is pleased that the state finally is addressing the need to retain and recruit direct care workers.

"It's not near what's needed, but it's a start," she said.

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