DHS seeks raise for social workers

JACKSON – The Mississippi Department of Human Services wants a budget increase of $1.9 million primarily to provide a pay raise for the agency’s 600 social workers.
Don Thompson, director of the agency that oversees a litany of social services, said Tuesday it costs the state more to train the employees, who leave for better-paying jobs after about two years, than it would cost to give them the pay raise.
“What we are asking for is the ability to recruit and retain them,” Thompson told the Legislative Budget Committee, which this week is hearing budget requests from state agency heads.
Those requests will go toward developing a proposal that will be used as a guideline for the 2010 Legislature.
The social workers serve in a number of areas, primarily helping neglected and abused children. Lori Woodruff, deputy administrator in children and family services at DHS, said each social worker has on average about 20 cases.
If the Legislature appropriates the money, the goal would be to increase their pay between $2,500 and $3,000. On average, after the pay raise, they would be earning about $28,000 per year.
“You’re talking about enough for people to live on and to work in the career they chose,” Woodruff said.
Legislative leaders on the Budget Committee are skeptical of all requests for additional funds this year because of a slowdown in tax collections.
Still, House Public Health Committee Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, told Thompson and Woodruff that the social workers are needed, and he would work with them to try to obtain the funds.
During Monday’s budget hearings, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, gently chastised officials with the Department of Finance and Administration for requesting extra money at a time when their boss – Gov. Haley Barbour – is talking about cutting agencies.
Nunnelee told DFA officials “it will be very confusing if I get mixed messages” by their requested increase not being in the governor’s budget proposal, which is scheduled to be released in November.
But Nunnelee did not raise similar objections to Thompson, who also reports directly to Barbour.
Thompson told legislative leaders that the work for his office has intensified. More people are using food stamps and other federal programs that are administered by his agency.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal