A semi truck drives east on I-70 toward St. Louis

A semi truck drives east on I-70 near Columbia. The Missouri Department of Transportation is asking for more money to boost the pay of its workers in a ramp-up to a potentially busy construction schedule.

JEFFERSON CITY — In what has become a familiar refrain in state government, the agency overseeing mental health treatment in Missouri has again hired private contractors to provide temporary workers at its facilities.

According to purchasing documents, the Missouri Department of Mental Health has hired at least six temp agencies to provide licensed clinical social workers at its psychiatric hospitals.

The reason: The state doesn’t pay enough to keep workers from leaving.

“It is difficult for DMH to recruit and retain staff when the private sector is offering higher wages per hour as well as sign-on bonuses,” said Debra Walker, spokesperson for the agency.

Under Gov. Mike Parson, the state has been attempting to boost state worker wage levels, which are among the lowest in the nation. But, the 2% annual raises approved by the Legislature and the governor have not begun to show dividends.

In its proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning next July 1, the Missouri Department of Transportation is asking for more money to boost the pay of its workers in a ramp-up to a potentially busy construction schedule.

The Missouri Department of Corrections has closed some sections of its prisons because of a shortage of available guards. And, the Missouri Veterans Commission reported Monday that its turnover rate for frontline health care workers topped 90% last year.

The mental health agency is no different. At the Southeast Missouri Mental Health Center in Farmington, for example, there are 10 vacancies for licensed social workers.

The jobs range in pay from about $46,000 to $55,000 per year.

The staffing woes are not new at the department. In the fiscal year ending June 30, the state paid four of the companies nearly $400,000 to provide contract workers at various state facilities.

It’s not clear how much the department will pay in the coming months.

“We don’t know at this time how many workers will be needed, therefore, we can’t estimate an overall cost,” Walker said.

The department also is calling on lawmakers to help boost the pay of the private companies who provide workers to take care of developmentally disabled residents.

Budget documents show the department is seeking $166 million next year to increase hourly rates to $16 per hour for residential service providers, up from as low as $12 an hour.

The proposed increase is part of a four-year plan approved by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services designed to equalize pay rates among the companies that provide assistance to 7,000 residents.

According to an analysis by the National Core Indicators Staff Stability survey, the turnover rate for providers in 2019 was 51.5%, compared to 42.8% for all states that reported.

“This turnover is exacerbated by the recent low unemployment trend which has increased competition for this workforce,” the department said. “Retail and fast food employers directly compete for these workers and have increased pay rates beyond what the Division of DD (Developmental Disabilities) providers can afford.”

“The first priority is for providers to be able to secure qualified staff and retain them. This is extremely difficult in the current labor market. Sufficient rates are needed to stem the turnover rate,” the department added.

Whether the request makes it into Parson’s budget is not yet known. He is expected to unveil his spending blueprint in January.

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