Vermont aims to ‘stop the bleeding’

By Phyllis Hanlon
April 1st, 2022

Vermont is experiencing a serious staffing shortage, according to January data, which showed a 58.8 percent staffing vacancy rate, an increase from pre-pandemic times.

To ameliorate the situation, Human Services Secretary Mike Smith allocated $2 million in emergency funds for retention bonuses and other financial incentives.

Alison Krompf, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Mental Health (DMH) said, “It is too soon to determine the full effect of that financial incentive. We will be interested in the next data report from Vermont Care Partners on the number of vacancies to determine whether it had the ‘stop the bleeding’ impact the state was intending.”

However, Krompf pointed out that one glimmer of hope is the Jarrett House program, a Crisis Bed program for young children in the state. “The staffing crisis caused them to be unable to maintain their 24/7 capacity and they have been reduced to operating five days a week for many months due to lack of staffing,” she said. “Starting on February 14, 2022 that program is now back to 24/7 functioning, due to successful hiring.”

Krompf explained that DMH is taking “actionable steps” to address the staffing shortage. Specifically, DMH is providing a retention bonus of $500 initially; an additional retention bonus of $500 six months after initial bonus for new non-nurse staff; an additional retention bonus of $2,000 for nurses six months after initial bonus; and additional shift differential.

“When examining the need for increased financial support for community mental health agencies, it is imperative we do not make decisions in a silo and instead work in tandem with other human services departments to ensure there is a financial package that benefits all staff serving the community's human service needs.” --Alison Krompf, deputy commissioner, Vermont Department of Mental Health

Although DMH is examining ways to increase financial support for community mental health agencies, collaboration with other human services agencies is critical. “When examining the need for increased financial support for community mental health agencies, it is imperative we do not make decisions in a silo and instead work in tandem with other human services departments to ensure there is a financial package that benefits all staff serving the community’s human service needs,” Krompf said.

“If the Department of Mental Health puts forward a financial package on our own, it could draw more developmental service workers away from their roles, further exacerbating that issue. Therefore, the Agency of Human Services is working on a more comprehensive work force stabilization plan that aims to address the full picture.”

Elizabeth M. Sightler, executive director, Champlain Community Services (CCS) in Colchester, Vermont, reported that although her organization had been named one of the Top 50 places to work in Vermont twice during the pandemic, it was still experiencing such a high staffing vacancy rate its mission was threatened.

“We put a lot of effort into our work culture and offer good benefits, but we had to align the earnings,” she said. “We had a 60 percent vacancy. It was devastating. People were leaving for other jobs where they could earn more with less stress.”

In November the board of directors took a radical step and approved a raise from $15.50 to $18.00. “We have seen some improvement since then,” Sightler said. The vacancy rate is 40 percent currently.

CCS did receive a portion of the $2 million in emergency funds that the Health Secretary allocated. “We identified people who had done 24-hour frontline work,” she said. “Half of the staff was eligible for bonuses, but not all of them got them. They still felt recognized.”

Sightler reported that her organization is asking the legislature for a 10 percent increase, which would enable her to boost pay to $20 per hour. “We’re looking for a leg to shore us up,” she said.

Lynda L. Marshall, JD, former human resources director at Lamoille County Mental Health Services from 2013-2016, voiced her approval for the funding. “I am glad the designated agencies are getting additional funds for salary/compensation,” she said. “They have traditionally been extremely underfunded, resulting in really low pay, even though they provide the broadest, most intensive outpatient services.”

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