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Editor’s note: This article is part 2 of the three-part investigative series Dodging Standards from Carolina Public Press, which examines North Carolina local social services agencies hiring workers who don’t meet minimum standards, systemic challenges in hiring for these positions, how other states avoid these concerns and what North Carolina could do differently. This project was made possible in part through financial backing from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Adonica Hampton has done the math.
“We are an easy interstate drive to six counties,” said Hampton, Granville County’s Department of Social Services director.
Durham is just 29 miles from the Granville County Department of Social Services office in Oxford. Raleigh is 51 miles. Wake Forest, 27 miles. Burlington, 64 miles.
That proximity to bigger cities can account for some of her office’s struggle to retain qualified workers throughout her office. Of her 100-person office, 43% have been there fewer than three years.
“That means we’re lacking that institutional knowledge,” she said.
“I’m hiring many trainees that are being trained to learn the job and don’t come with prior experience. When they have one or two years, they then become qualified to receive a salary in a neighboring county — not as a trainee.”
Changing jobs is often the best path to a pay increase in many fields. In Granville County’s case, working for a neighboring county can mean an increase of $10,000 or more per year, according to an annual salary survey by the UNC School of Government. Granville County social workers were among the lowest paid in the state, out of counties that responded to UNC’s survey.
A social worker II in Granville County started at around $31,000 per year, but in neighboring Durham County, the same position earned more than $43,000, the 2020 UNC survey said. Both Franklin and Wake county DSS offices paid a social worker II more than $41,000.
“It’s the same job,” Hampton said. “I think we are in crisis.”
Persistence of pay disparities
Hampton is not alone in seeing the crisis before her. When contacted in recent weeks by Carolina Public Press, several directors of social services expressed their worry for the staffs in their counties.
Their concerns range from unequal pay that leads workers to pick jobs in counties that pay more, a lack of timely training options and futile attempts to retain workers for positions that, by their nature, can lead to burnout and departure from the workforce.
Inconsistent pay from county to county is the top reason social workers leave their jobs, followed by job stress, high caseloads, burnout and low supervisor support, according to a 2016 evaluation of the state’s child welfare system.
When workers leave, it causes a ripple effect throughout their departments, which shuffles their workloads to remaining employees.
Counties must also hire replacements and compete with surrounding counties that are also seeking qualified workers.
“We are in a recruitment and retention pandemic, across the board,” said Jeff Harrison, DSS director for Lenoir County.
In February, his economic services department had 17 vacancies. Half of his child welfare department was unstaffed at 10 vacancies.
“My turnover rate for 2021 in child welfare was 61%,” Harrison said in February. “We are still meeting the same standards and requirements … as if we were at full capacity.”
That means supervisors may have to carry a caseload, or social workers earn compensatory time off when they work more than 40 hours a week. Finding that time to take off represents another challenge because the department is so short-staffed, Harrison said.
A college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in social work can enter the workforce at any DSS office in the state. Before child welfare workers can carry a caseload, they must complete 72 hours of training. But Harrison said the training isn’t offered nearby or often enough.
Of the 23 social workers hired in Lenoir County, 16 are on work-against status, Harrison said. This means these job applicants did not meet minimum standards set forth in state law for the positions, but in the absence of any candidates who did meet those standards, the county could hire them and see that they receive on-the-job training.
The department hired 16 people for income maintenance caseworker II positions. Of those, 12 are on work-against status.
“For (income maintenance caseworkers), it’s more common than not to hire employees in (work-against),” he said.
“We do get some fully qualified employees, but we always have more that are in a work-against.”
The number of social workers who are in work-against has increased in the past two years, Harrison said.
“Hiring staff as work-against requires a lot more work and one-on-one supervision,” he said. “I am by no means used to, or completely comfortable with work-against (employees), but the reality of the workforce today is that is what is available.
“So, we adjust our processes and continue to provide the same quality of service.”
Hampton, from Granville County, particularly struggles to recruit and retain economic services workers, who determine eligibility for programs like Medicaid and food stamps. Hampton said there’s little structured training for those workers by the state.
Nekia King, administrative officer for Camden County DSS, cited the long hours, unpredictable workday, heavy caseloads and high turnover as negatives of a job in a government social work agency.
“The low pay is the main barrier,” she said. “But I think if you can offer incentives to workers, that may aid in retention. It’s also important for the staff to know they have support when needed and not feel that they are on their own.”
In coastal Dare County, the high cost of living and lack of affordable housing in the popular tourist destination are significant barriers to social worker recruitment, DSS Director Chuck Lycett said.
“Hatteras Island is a remote location, which makes it difficult to hire social workers to cover this area,” Lycett said.
The 2016 report suggests the state and counties adopt a model that would attract more qualified social workers to remote areas, similar to the way the state helps balance a shortage of primary care health workers in rural areas by providing student loan repayment.
Salary inequities “could prompt staff at any given level … to pursue a job in a county that provided better compensation,” according to a 2018 report to the state legislature on social services reform.
“Salary discrepancies across counties are perhaps the greatest factor to inconsistent service delivery in the state.”
Salaries in one county were so low for workers whose responsibilities were to ensure families met requirements to receive help buying food or paying utility bills “that several of them qualified for (food and nutrition services support). And it is likely … that this could be true in other counties.”
Another report from 2004 said, “Turnover and retention problems have become so acute as to seriously compromise the safety and well-being of the most vulnerable children.”
The report by what is now the Office of State Human Resources advocated for county flexibility to pay workers with more demanding or emotionally grueling jobs at a different classification to help counties retain workers.
Burnout is a major reason for turnover in county DSS offices, said Kevin Marino, interim DSS director for Rutherford County.
“It’s high stress, high trauma,” he said. “You’re going into homes, and we’re investigating things that have to do with domestic violence, substance misuse … children that are sexually abused, physically abused.
“Because the universities don’t properly prepare them for reality, we get them here and they learn that on the job. And when they get on the job and learn it, they leave.”
People don’t call DSS when they’re having a great day. Social workers at times find themselves in chaotic scenes with traumatic outcomes. They have to make a decision, at times quickly, whether a child is being abused or neglected, and then figure out what steps to take next.
The call can come at any time, not just during a normal workday.
“The duties can be demanding and regularly involve working nights, weekends and holidays,” said Samantha Hurd, DSS director for Currituck County. “… We seek input from workers about ways to help them, and we also provide trauma and resiliency training for our social work staff.”
Social workers in Currituck County are among the better paid in the state. A social worker II there was paid about $44,000 per year according to the UNC survey.
Despite the challenges, Hurd said the work can also be rewarding because it helps members of the community: “We find great satisfaction in having an opportunity to make a difference.”
The pandemic has also caused a shift in how people think about work and whether they want to work in the office, at home or with the public, a Mecklenburg County spokeswoman said. Mecklenburg County has challenges recruiting and keeping workers, even though it is among the counties that pay the highest for a social worker II at about $45,300.
“The biggest challenge with hiring personnel and retention of personnel is directly related to ‘The Great Resignation,’” said spokeswoman Tammy Thompson, relaying a response from the county HR department.
“The greater majority of our DSS roles require employees to be on-site. Remote work is not an option for most of our positions.”
In Cleveland County near Charlotte, Director Katie Swanson described “heavy competition for highly qualified DSS workers.”
During periods of high turnover, Cleveland County has at times responded with increased pay. A social worker II earned $38,136 in Cleveland County compared with Mecklenburg’s $43,345, or Catawba or Lincoln at around $40,000, according to the 2020 UNC salary survey.
But pay is only part of the equation, Swanson said. Right now, her child welfare department only has three openings out of 49 positions.
“We also are intentionally building an environment where employees feel they are part of a team with a positive culture,” Swanson said. “Put more simply, we want to be a place where employees like coming to work every day.”
Workforce and college education
Cherokee County DSS Director Amanda Tanner-McGee did not respond to a CPP survey sent to her office in February, but in a conversation last year, she said every director in the seven western counties — collectively called the “Smoky Seven” — had job openings and a tough time filling them.
“The issue for Cherokee County is that I believe we have depleted all of the people that live in this county that have a degree and are interested in this work,” she said in August. “Most people like to go into private practice now, so it is seriously difficult to recruit people.”
In 2020, the county DSS offices across the state were funded for 3,222 social workers in the child welfare division. However, only 2,778 of those positions were filled, according to a DHHS survey of the child welfare workforce in county DSS offices.
Also during that year, 861 child welfare social workers left their jobs for a variety of reasons, such as a promotion, lateral transfer, resignation or retirement. That’s nearly 1-in-3 social workers who left their jobs. Of those who left, 574, or more than half, resigned.
The DHHS statewide survey of child welfare workers paints an incomplete picture of the social work workforce — social workers also have jobs in adult services and determining eligibility for economic help like food stamps or utilities assistance.
Tanner-McGee said she thinks universities are not graduating enough social work students to make up for these losses. Those who do graduate with a bachelor’s degree prefer to work in hospitals or private practice where they will make more money, not at local social services offices.
“There are very few applicants going into DSSs across the state,” Tanner-McGee said. “The directors have been talking about this. It’s at a crisis level.”
The nearest university to Murphy that offers a four-year degree is a 90-minute drive away. In the 2019-20 school year, Western Carolina University graduated 55 students with bachelor’s degrees in social work and 49 students with master’s degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Not all of these graduates will work for government agencies.
Statewide, universities graduated 957 social work students with bachelor’s degrees and 807 students with master’s degrees, the federal data shows.
What can the state do?
Harrison said the state can help counties by boosting salaries in counties with lower pay “to compensate for the difficult work that goes on in child welfare.”
“Those are complicated and complex situations to work through to help families figure out how to ensure their children’s safety and well-being,” Harrison said. “They are convoluted and complex. It’s a complex cycle of abuse and neglect that goes on.
“We try to keep our chin above water is what we do on a daily basis,” Harrison said.
Tyrell County DSS serves a population of around 3,200 people. County Manager David Clegg said recruiting staff in very rural communities is often difficult.
“A baseline equitable salary across counties, with the ability of counties to supplement (that salary), might help recruit more social workers and directors to impoverished communities,” Clegg said.
Several directors in rural areas said training was not accessible for their workers in a time frame or location that was convenient for them.
Beaufort County DSS Director Melanie Corprew said she’s seen fewer qualified applicants for open positions as the pandemic progressed. She said more money would help her office retain and attract people to serve her rural county.
Like many rural counties, resources and services to help residents with substance use issues and mental health needs are in scant supply, she said.
“When there are not enough resources, staff often must work overtime to try to meet the needs of our families, children and adults,” Corprew said.
When asked what it would mean to his community in Lenoir County to have a fully staffed and trained office, Harrison paused.
“That would be a dream,” he said with a wistful tone in his voice. His office could work on strengthening families so they could stay together and not have to use foster services.
“If we were completely, fully staffed, and we had all 144 positions full on a regular, long-term daily basis, we could provide really good services to our citizens. They could be enhanced services. We could spend more time with the families and children we serve, and it doesn’t become a rapid-fire response, or an emergency response,” Harrison said.
Hiring whomever you can
In coastal Pamlico County, all workers DSS hire must meet the state’s minimum qualifications, “or they are not hired,” said Deborah Green, director of Pamlico County Human Services Center.
However, “Social workers may not be fully qualified for the position they are hired into.”
The agency might want a social worker III, who can handle complex situations that a worker with years of experience can handle well. But the county might only be able to attract a social worker I, who only has a bachelor’s degree and no experience.
Green and many other directors will hire someone on a “work-against” basis.
“After a year of experience, they would then be considered as an SW II and would be paid at that level,” Green said. “After two years of experience, that person would then be considered an SW III. Training is ongoing.”
In 2020, the UNC salary survey said, Pamlico paid $34,877 for a social worker II. All of the county’s neighbors paid between $7,000 and $10,000 more for the same position.
“As for finding and retaining qualified workers, we are a small rural county, and unfortunately, the surrounding counties are able to pay significantly higher salaries,” she said.
North Carolina counties like Pamlico that are smaller, more remote and have fewer resources to offer competitive salaries face the challenge of at times not being able to recruit candidates who meet the state’s minimal qualifications for social worker and DSS director positions.
While hiring people in work-against status is not ideal, these counties say they are still following the rules.
When a county flouts state hiring policies by hiring an unqualified worker when qualified people are available, some state agency should be able to step in to enforce current hiring rules, said Rep. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth.
“I don’t have a problem with (counties) having some flexibility in hiring, because I don’t always think the person with the most credentials is always the best candidate for a position,” Krawiec said.
However, a government should not be able to ignore minimum qualifications to skirt the rules, she said.
“That just opens up the door for too much nepotism and favoritism, and you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours kind of thing,” she said.
“So, I definitely think we need to make some changes there. But I don’t know what they are.”