Low pay for Utah state workers causes chronic understaffing, forces some onto government assistance

Gov. Spencer Cox has suggested raises for some of the state’s 23,200 employees. The decision rests with state lawmakers.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crystal Rose is a state caseworker who has to work a second job to make ends meet. Rose was photographed in Midvale on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021.

Direct care workers at Utah State Hospital could probably earn higher wages flipping burgers at a fast-food restaurant, the facility’s director acknowledges. They are paid $11 an hour.

Staffers are responsible for dressing and bathing patients at the psychiatric care facility in Provo. They take people to medical appointments or accompany them to group activities. Most importantly, they fill round-the-clock shifts watching out for those who are at risk of harming themselves or others.

Dallas Earnshaw, the superintendent, said it’s a challenge to keep employees because of the low pay.

“We’re not even competing with other health care facilities. We’re competing with entry-level jobs for people right out of high school,” he said. “So it’s very hard to recruit staff who need to have some training and education to work with people with severe mental illness.”

Turnover has cropped up in many corners of the Utah government — which can lag behind the private sector in employee pay and has trimmed back the benefits package that has historically attracted talent, a recent review of state agencies shows.

The pandemic has increased the strain, and as unemployment rates rose, the state Legislature axed planned salary bumps and some underpaid employees confronted heightened demand and the risk of disease exposure.

Transition reports compiled for newly inaugurated Gov. Spencer Cox said the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC) is “facing a crisis of personnel” because of turnover driven by below-market wages and strict hiring requirements. Information technology experts are lured away by the salary offerings at Silicon Slopes companies, and some employees at the Utah Department of Human Services depend on government assistance to get by, the documents show.

The problem isn’t distributed evenly across the 23,200-employee executive branch workforce: The average salary for a state worker is about $48,800, only a few hundred dollars shy of the overall average wage in Utah, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the state’s 14% turnover for fiscal 2020 was actually a little bit below overall workplace averages, Utah human resources data suggests.

At several state agencies, though, employees are leaving at a much faster pace, with the DABC’s turnover rate clocking in at more than twice the statewide average and the Board of Pardons and Parole at 27%, human resources officials say. The governor’s review identified both agencies as hot spots.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Cox’s proposed budget for next year seeks to address compensation needs by restoring the cost-of-living raise that was lost last year, with additional resources targeted to certain “critical areas where state employee wages are highly uncompetitive.”

Legislative leaders who will shepherd a state spending plan through their chambers in coming weeks seem to agree that there’s a salary problem.

”There is a sense of concern — and I believe most legislators feel it — that we are not competitive as a state trying to keep good people,” Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, told reporters recently. “And we’ve got really good people that work inside the state government.”

$37K a year for social work

Crystal Rose has been a family caseworker at the state for the past six years — but because that job doesn’t cover her bills she cleans homes on the side.

She believes in what she does as a drug court specialist, helping parents get clean and sober so families can reunite. The mother of two acknowledges, though, that she’s thought many times about searching for another job, as she watches coworker after coworker leave for higher pay elsewhere.

“I don’t blame them,” she said. “You could essentially go get a position at Amazon or places like that and make more than what we make. ... And we deal with some really tough and difficult stuff.”

Frontline workers at the Utah Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) earn a median salary of $35,880 per year, according to a fact sheet recently shared with state lawmakers. The agency saw a 32% turnover among these staffers in the fiscal year that ended in June, and foster care advocates say these departures take a significant toll on the agency and the Utahns served by it.

Mike Hamblin, CEO of Utah Foster Care, told legislators that he’s heard from many families who struggle to build trust with caseworkers who come and go, sometimes in rapid succession. One foster parent told him about interacting with a caseworker who’d only been on the job for a month — but was already mentoring a trainee.

Foster parents, he said, have described hesitation and concern they feel as an unfamiliar caseworker begins making decisions that could alter their lives. And they’ve shared “disappointment as children they’re caring for decide that workers are temporary and choose not to engage with their latest worker,” Hamblin continued.

(Isaac Hale | The Daily Herald file photo via AP) This photo taken Feb. 25, 2020, shows an informational sheet on a desk during a question-and-answer forum with current foster parents hosted by Utah Foster Care at the organization's state headquarters in Murray.

Aside from leaving some employees without a living wage, DCFS salaries also lag behind those in other states, according to the agency, which reported that a social worker with one year on the job earns nearly $52,000 annually in Idaho compared to $37,000 in Utah. Diane Moore, head of DCFS, said it would be possible for one of her employees to work an entire career without ever attaining Idaho’s base pay.

Rose gravitated toward social work as a young adult, after she took kinship placement of a relative. The caseworker assigned to her family was making a difference, and she aspired to do the same.

“I really, really strongly believe that families can be rebuilt and overcome the struggles that they’ve had,” she said. “I love doing that. It’s one of my favorite things to see people succeed.”

She and her colleagues have to sacrifice to stay in the jobs they love, though.

Rose said it’s been a struggle to save up money to buy a home, so she and her family have moved in with her parents to cut down on costs. And many of her coworkers need to take side jobs to pay the bills. Some of them do housekeeping, while others put in hours at different treatment centers or hold down retail jobs.

Though she makes extra money by cleaning, Rose said she’s also fortunate that her husband earns a decent income working for the Utah Transit Authority. But she feels it’s strange that he makes more with a professional certificate than she does with a college degree.

“It’s not fair,” she said. “I worked really hard through college.”

‘Revolving door’

The Cox transition team’s memo gave glowing reviews to the Utah Department of Workforce Services (DWS), calling it a “highly efficient, effective” organization with a talented staff dedicated to assisting low-income and unemployed Utahns. But despite a strong sense of mission and good morale, the agency often sees employees walk away for a bigger paycheck elsewhere.

The agency’s starting wage is $15 an hour, the report noted — and at that rate, an employee with a household of four would qualify for the very government aid that workforce service provides.

“Utah needs to fix an antiquated wage increase structure,” the review stated. If it does not, agencies will “continue to deal with a revolving door.”

The department’s turnover of about 11% isn’t terrible, said spokesman Nate McDonald, but it’s much higher in certain parts of DWS. And although he’s not aware of anyone at the agency who depends on public assistance, he does acknowledge that low salaries are a concern to supervisors and staff.

The transition memo identified similar problems in the department of technology services, which competes with a “vibrant and growing Silicon Slopes community” to recruit and keep skilled workers. Low pay has also left critical public safety divisions such as the State Bureau of Investigation and Utah Division of Emergency Management “chronically understaffed,” according to the reports.

The state’s transportation department also grapples with this problem, as workers walk away for better-paying jobs in construction, said Kendle Zdunich, spokesperson for the Utah Public Employees Association. In some cases, the state pays for employees to obtain commercial driver licenses or construction and project inspection certificates only to see their workers leave once they’ve become marketable.

Several of the agencies mentioned in the transition documents declined an interview request or didn’t respond. A spokesperson for the Utah Department of Public Safety (DPS) sent a statement that noted that its salary scale is set by human resources officials in conjunction with the governor and Legislature.

“Our employees are the backbone of DPS,” wrote Lt. Nicholas Street, a department spokesman. “Working within the parameters of the budgets set forth by the Legislature and rules issued by [the department of human resource management], we strive to ensure that our employees are paid a fair wage in order to provide the best service possible to the people of Utah.”

McDonald points out that pay isn’t the only factor in considering whether to join the state’s workforce. He took a pay cut to move from the private sector to a job in state government, but he said the benefits and insurance package helped make up for that.

“And then it became more of a decision about what type of work I want to do,” he said.

However, Zdunich said state officials have been chipping away at the benefits package over the last 15 years or so, promising that these retirement and sick leave cuts would free up money to plow back into salaries.

“While those benefits have been reduced little by little,” she said, “the added compensation hasn’t really been happening.”

$25M to restore 3% hike

The Utah Public Employees Association is pressing legislators this session for a 6% compensation increase, which includes the 3% hike that lawmakers passed early last year but later eliminated during pandemic-induced budget cuts. The organization also wants lawmakers to allocate “hot spot funding” for places where the needs are especially acute.

Across-the-board pay raises are part of the solution, in Earnshaw’s view, but he also thinks agencies need the flexibility to steer additional resources toward tuition aid, referral incentives or career mobility programs.

“Traditional approaches don’t always work to help us stay competitive,” he said. “There’s got to be some creativity in how we approach compensation, and it’s got to be strategic, because every discipline, every worker has different needs.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Gov. Spencer Cox delivers his State of the State address at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. Cox has asked for $25 million to grant a 3% salary increase to state employees, with another $23 million or so for targeted hikes and rising health care costs.

In his proposed budget, Cox set aside $25 million to restore the 3% pay increase from last year and another $6.6 million for health insurance costs. His plan would devote nearly $9 million to “hot spot funding” and $7.3 million for targeted increases in public safety and corrections.

These funding decisions are now up to state lawmakers, who will finalize a spending plan during the 45-day general session that began Jan. 19. A base budget measure already approved by legislators reinstated the 3% pay increases for state employees, higher education workers and staff in the legislative and judicial branches — and lawmakers could consider allotting even more money to pay enhancements out of the projected $1.5 billion they have left to spend in the coming budget year.

Sen. Todd Weiler, who sits on the Retirement and Independent Entities Appropriations Subcommittee that sees compensation studies every few years, said he’s well aware of the trickle of state employees to other entities.

“We have several other organizations, like the University of Utah and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that are more than happy to take our best employees away,” the Woods Cross Republican said. “So I think we have to be careful that we don’t become kind of a training ground and just training our best employees to get pirated off by other organizations. That’s a concern of mine.”

And after hearing DCFS managers talk about underpaid caseworkers who have kept on visiting families’ homes during the pandemic, state lawmakers working on that area of the budget indicated they’d like to do more than just reverse last year’s COVID-19 cuts.

“I mean, a raise is a raise, but I would love to see this be higher,” Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, said during a recent committee meeting. “I would love to see an actual increase so that they can feel that difference. And bless these people for the work they do.”

— Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens contributed to this report.

Clarification • 10:30 a.m., Feb. 7, 2021: Nate McDonald moved from the private sector to a job in the state’s transportation department and later to a position at workforce services.