October 11, 2017

Pay gap creating crisis in human services sector, agencies say

Flickr/Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism
Human services agencies say state workers earn more money, resulting in a shortage of workers.

Fourteen months after the signing of a law calling for equal pay across gender lines, representatives from human services agencies asked legislators for help closing a different sort of pay gap.

Mark Schueppert, the general counsel and vice president of human resources for the Needham-based Justice Resource Institute, said some of his organization's staff works in the same building as state employees who are doing similar jobs but earning more money, resulting in "literally dozens" of workers leaving for state jobs in the last three years.

"Our employees are talking to state employees, hearing how much they make," Schueppert told the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities on Tuesday. "And just in the last month I've had direct care workers, nurses and social workers come to me complaining about how much they're making and how much state employees are making, and why is there the disparity."

Schueppert asked the committee to back a bill filed by Rep. Kay Khan, its House chair, and Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry that aims to eliminate the pay disparity between state workers and their counterparts at private, community-based human services nonprofits.

The bill (H 3150, S 47) charges the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, the Executive Office of Elder Affairs, the Department of Housing and Community Development, and the Department of Early Education and Care with gradually increasing their reimbursement rates for contracted human services providers so that the pay disparity is eliminated on or before July 1, 2023.

It does not set dollar amounts for the rate increases, instead calling for the average difference in salary between state-employed workers and comparable employees at state-operated human services programs to be cut in half by July 2019, and then reduced to 35 percent by 2020, 20 percent by 2021, and 5 percent by 2022.

"We recognize that this is an expense," Schueppert said. "We're very much in support of a phased-in approach and looking at the magnitude of the problem and finding some way to reach a solution in increments."

According to the Providers' Council, the salary disparity makes it "increasingly difficult" for private human services providers to recruit and retain qualified staff, while the human services sector as a whole is already facing a workforce shortage.

A Providers' Council study released in February found that the number of human services jobs in Massachusetts shot up by 67 percent to 164,000 from 2003 to 2014. Between now and 2024, the industry will need to fill 24,000 to 25,000 new jobs, according to the study, which was conducted by the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute and UMass Dartmouth.

The report said human services providers experience high rates of turnover, and 70 percent of employers reported viewing state government as a source of competition for workers.

"Often times, community-based human services organizations feel as if their agencies are a career pipeline for future state employees," the study said. "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. Most state jobs can offer better pay and benefits packages with more paid leave, better or lower cost health insurance, and retirement plans."

JoAnne Wahl, the director of residential services at Northeast Arc, said she was "floored" to find out two of her "highest rate professionals," both married women with children, had low enough family incomes to be eligible for housing assistance and Medicaid.

"That, to me, was a travesty," she said. "These are very hard working women, they should have equitable pay for the work that they do."

Wahl said the bill would have a "profound impact" and help address a "brewing crisis" in the human services agency.


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