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With low wages, Utah child welfare caseworkers have side jobs, live on government assistance

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Posted at 5:03 PM, Jan 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-12 19:55:33-05

SANDY, Utah — Crystal Rose loves the work she does as a social worker for Utah's Division of Child and Family Services.

She helps people overcome addiction and has been working for the agency for the past six years.

"I absolutely love helping people and helping them find a better life," Rose said in an interview with FOX 13.

But making ends meet is tough. She and her husband moved back in with her parents so she could save for a home. She works a side-job as a housekeeper after she's done with a stressful day at DCFS.

"Me and a co-worker on my team do it together," she said.

Rose is among a number of DCFS caseworkers identified by Governor Spencer Cox's administration who do not make an adequate wage. A memo put out by the governor's transition team on Utah's Department of Human Services was scathing in how it found employees working multiple jobs to make ends meet. Some, it found, were on welfare.

"Some caseworkers work multiple jobs in order to make ends meet and even need government assistance. A state job should provide a living wage," the report put it bluntly.

Rose agrees.

"If I didn’t have my husband to help me get by, I’d be on government assistance and I know there are caseworkers on government assistance to get by," she told FOX 13. "It’s always stressful how much you’re bringing home to provide for your family."

It's a problem that has been building for years, said DCFS director Diane Moore. Especially considering what the state requires of caseworkers who respond to families in crisis and investigate reports of child abuse.

"It really is not a living wage in the state of Utah," Moore said. "Even though people come to us with a college degree and work one of the most difficult and challenging jobs around."

DCFS said the median pay for its caseworkers is $35,880 a year, regardless of tenure. The turnover in the agency has now hit an alarming 32 percent. By comparison, Idaho child welfare caseworkers make nearly $52,000 a year in starting wages and have only a 16 percent turnover rate for employees.

"We are responding to families in their most difficult crisis. That’s what this really is about. If you’re a family and you’re receiving our services or you’re someone in our community who is calling, you want to be assured that the people showing up are experienced professionals that know what they’re doing," Moore said. "And with 32 percent turnover? We’ve trained 200 new workers just since the pandemic started."

Throughout COVID-19, DCFS caseworkers have still had to put on personal protective equipment and respond in-person to abuse reports or crisis situations. High turnover means less experienced people responding to calls for help. Last year, the Utah State Legislature budgeted $2 million for raises for caseworkers.

Then the pandemic hit and in a round of state agency budget cuts, the raises were taken away.

"Knowing that housing prices are going up, food prices are going up, so many things across the board in the last year with COVID and things, it’s so hard to get by," said Rose.

Gov. Cox's proposed budget to the legislature seeks to restore the cost and give a little more money to state employees. In her remarks on social service appropriations, Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson acknowledged it has hit a tipping point.

"A number of employee classifications are 20 to 30% below market wages and we’re having a really difficult time attracting and retaining employees," she said.

The governor proposes a budget, but it will be up to the legislature to pass one. Rose said she was hopeful when she heard the governor's announcement. Moore is confident her division will see some pay raises for caseworkers.

"These are amazing people who come into the field so they can protect children and strengthen families. They have so much to offer, but unfortunately it’s so difficult for them to stay," she said.