Appropriations Committees – Week 1 Update

Each year the Utah State Legislature begins the session by reviewing base budgets and appropriation requests. These meetings occur daily for the first few weeks until base budgets are finalized by each subcommittee. During this process, subcommittees hear presentations from agencies, fiscal analysts, and legislators about funding requests. Specific funding requests are amended, denied, approved and then sent as a base budget to the Executive Appropriations Committee for final approval.

Social Services

On January 30, 2020, the Social Services Subcommittee discussed Department of Child and Family Services appropriations, including caseworker employee salaries. The meeting began with public input on the day’s agenda; each individual commented on the impact of the recruitment and retention issues faced by DCFS. Mike Hamblin, Executive Director at Utah Foster Care, spoke about beginning his career at DCFS 25 years ago. As a caseworker with a four-year professional degree and a license, Mike still qualified for food stamps. He expressed to the committee that DCFS caseworkers today are experiencing the same story; forced to work multiple jobs to support themselves and their families. He was followed by foster parents who stressed how the frequent turnover of caseworkers negatively impacts the child, the biological family, and the foster family. The lack of continuity leads to more missed deadlines, an increase in the time it takes for case resolution, and amplified stress in the already difficult experience of removing a child from their home.

Dianne Moore, Director of Child and Family Services, requested a salary increase for DCFS caseworkers who coordinate cases for youth in out-of-home care or at risk of out-of-home care. Incoming Utah caseworkers are paid $32,000 per year on average, compared to Idaho’s starting salary of $51,000 on average. Director Moore attributed Utah’s elevated turnover rate, 30 percent, to that wage discrepancy. Cases that are assigned multiple caseworkers take six to nine months longer to close than cases with only one caseworker assigned. The impact is higher costs for DCFS, the Courts, and other state agencies. It also reduces the engagement and trust between caseworkers and families. This can lead to worse outcomes for the families involved. Advocate Pamala Atkinson stated that these children, who have experienced all different kinds of abuse and life challenges, “are not getting the continuity of care they need,” with the high turnover rate.

Director Moore stressed to the committee, “This work is not temporary work.. Individuals in these positions need knowledge, experience, and skill”. Despite the needed expertise, fifty percent of families are served by DCFS caseworkers with less than three years of experience. This is primarily due to compensation; the average salary for all caseworkers, no matter their longevity, is only $17.88/hour. The current wage to rent in Salt Lake City is $23/hour. In fiscal year 2019, 32 percent of DCFS cases were assigned three or more caseworkers. Compensation for caseworkers needs to be increased to recruit and retain the important people who work these positions. Senator Escamilla (D)-Salt Lake City, expressed concern that caseworkers are not even meeting living wages, and asked how much is needed to meet Idaho’s caseworker compensation. Director Moore told the committee that DCFS would need a 12-million-dollar investment to meet Idaho’s standards and 3.5 million dollars to meet living wage in Salt Lake. She stated, DCFS is going to “use anything that we can get wisely and efficiently. We have a plan for the 1.9 million dollars (included in her appropriation request) for retention, to keep the people we have up to date.” The 1.9 million does not help with the recruitment of new employees.

The Governor’s Budget recommends to fund the FY2021 Discretionary and Targeted Compensations by Agency list, which includes $2,680,400 for DCFS Frontline Direct Care Workforce. UPEA is actively lobbying for funding for the targeted hotspot list, and is communicating with legislators to see what else can be done to help secure funding for DCFS.

Executive Offices & Criminal Justice

Attorney General, Sean Reyes, compared the current situation within the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) to the Star Ship Enterprise to address employee compensation and a lack of resources. Reyes stated, “I’m giving her all she’s got, if we push her any harder, she’s likely to blow.” Over the past several years, the AGO has seen a substantial increase in employee turnover rates and if this trend continues,  the AGO will unable to cover all incoming cases effectively. The current salary level is making recruitment extremely difficult. In a comparison with other public law offices, AGO attorneys came up 29% below the average county attorney salary.

The AGO is requesting over $4.3 million to increase attorney salaries by 7.5%. This adjustment would help to bring their current compensation levels closer to market comparability and foster recruitment and retention of legal talent. This request is roughly 8 times larger than the Governor’s targeted compensation adjustment recommendation of $567,800. Reyes mentioned that the agency realizes that this is a large request; however, they hope to at least receive part of the funding to address this issue.

Business, Economic Development, & Labor

During the Business, Economic Development and Labor Committee on January 30th, Salvador Petilos, the Director of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, presented the department’s appropriations request. Mr. Petilos touted the work of the DABC program, Parents Empowered, which has decreased underage drinking from 28% in 2005 to 17% in 2018. The main focus of the appropriations request is on DABC employees. Overall, the turnover rate for employees at the DABC locations across the state is at 86%. When that percentage is broken down between part-time and full-time employees, it is 133% and 41%, respectively.

To this data, Mr. Petilos said, “We’ve reached a critical point.” He went on to speak about how the Draper, Park City, Sugar House and Downtown DABC stores are all overused and understaffed. Addressing the staffing issues is part one of the appropriation request of 1.2 million dollars to fund employee compensation increases. Part two, consists of remodeling and building new DABC stores to keep up with increased demand. As anecdotal evidence, Mr. Petilos stated that the Herriman store that opened 3 months ago, has already generated over 3 million dollars in revenue. 

Lawmakers on the committee were frustrated by the turnover rate data and encouraged the DABC to be innovative in finding solutions to change the institutional structure to help keep employees longer.