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Kentucky government sees efforts to retain more social workers start to pay off

The Kentucky State Capitol building stands in the forefront, with bright blue skies and white clouds above it.
Kittugwiki (via Wikimedia Commons)
Wikimedia Commons
Kentucky lawmakers heard from state officials Wednesday about the strategies they're using to reduce high turnover rates among social workers the government employs. So far, they're seeing modest improvements.

Social workers left their jobs with Kentucky’s government at high rates over the past couple of years. State officials told lawmakers Wednesday that their efforts to retain employees are yielding improvements.

Two officials from the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services appeared before state lawmakers Wednesday morning to detail how their efforts to reduce turnover among social workers are going.

So far, they’ve seen modest improvements. Turnover rates for the state's front-line social workers declined from 40% in 2021 to 34% in 2022.

The rates were worse for entry-level social workers but they still improved, dropping from 56% in 2021 to 49% in 2022. So far this year, they’ve had 27% turnover among those employees.

The state hasn’t expanded the size of its staff by much, though, so employees still have heavy caseloads.

Lesa Dennis is acting commissioner of the Department for Community Based Services, which employs the state’s social workers. At a meeting in Frankfort Wednesday, she told lawmakers on a budget review subcommittee that they’re using various strategies to recruit and retain more employees.

Those strategies include pairing new social workers with seasoned staffers for job coaching, allowing more flexible schedules and providing better resources for people experiencing “toxic stress” on the job.

“Continued exposure to trauma, for some individuals, makes this work less desirable without good supports put around them,” she said.

Eric Friedlander, secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, joined Dennis at Wednesday’s legislative meeting and said they’ve started providing “critical incident leave” for employees.

“Let me just give an example. There was a social worker that went out, had a gun pulled on them,” he said. “Our response at that point, because we didn’t have this leave, was like, ‘Sorry about that. Come back to work.’ And so that doesn’t help with staff retention at all,” he said. “Being able to acknowledge that trauma that folks see out there and giving them some time to breathe is really important.”

In addition to social workers who handle child and adult protection and foster care services, the state’s Department for Community Based Services also employs family support staff. They help connect families to public assistance benefits that can help them meet basic needs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid.

Turnover is an issue for their family support staff, too, but they’ve seen some improvement — from 29% in 2021 to 23% in 2022.

Friedlander said the workload for those employees is getting heavier because Kentucky must go back to verifying whether people remain eligible for Medicaid before renewing their benefits. Those verifications were on a three-year pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but that hiatus just ended.

Dennis said the modest improvements they’ve seen lately in turnover is partly due to pay increases. Before December 2021, an entry-level social worker’s starting salary was less than $34,000. Now it’s nearing $51,000.

Likewise, the state increased the starting salary for entry-level family support staffers, from under $27,000 to nearly $42,000.

Morgan is LPM's health reporter. Email Morgan at mwatkins@lpm.org.

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