State Rep. Julie Casimiro (D-North Kingstown) speaks about the need to fund Rhode Island’s social workers on the steps of the State House rotunda Thursday. (Photo by Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)
PROVIDENCE — As a clinical case manager for Child & Family, a private nonprofit human services agency based in Providence and Middletown, Devon Malki said he has to be on-call for clients 24/7.
“You can’t really sleep without wondering who might call in the middle of the night,” he said.
Despite the inconsistent hours, Malki said it’s rewarding to know he helped a family get the care they need to get back on their feet. Unfortunately, he said there aren’t enough staff to handle all these cases due to low pay for the positions.
“Our job is recognized as essential, but we aren’t being funded that way,” Malki said. “When you have someone so passionate about helping people, you look to build them up and keep them around — the passion slowly starts to fade when dealing with the financial struggles that comes with this position.”
Malki, who is applying to get his master’s degree, earns a little more than $40,000 a year, with around 20% of his salary coming from the American Rescue Plan Act passed by the federal government in 2021.
This pay bump is to expire on June 30.
“And that was the way to get people in,” Malki said.
Starting pay won’t be much better. Child & Family CEO Marty Sinnott said in an interview that social workers with bachelor’s degrees make around $19 an hour.
“You can make that rate at Cumberland farms,” he said. “And the work is a hell of a lot easier.”
Malki’s story was one of several told by social service workers and advocates at a rally inside the State House Thursday afternoon. The event saw hundreds of demonstrators clad in blue shirts fill the rotunda and House floor urging lawmakers to provide $200 million in funding to Rhode Island’s health and human services system.
This legislative session, Sen. Lou DiPalma (D-Middletown) and Rep. Julie Casimiro (D-North Kingstown) introduced bills in their respective chambers that would allocate $200 million in funding toward community services beginning next year through a 10% increase in Medicaid rates.
Legislation was passed last year to create a periodic rate review process to ensure adequate state reimbursement for social, human, and clinical services in Rhode Island.
“That was critical,” DiPalma told the crowd. “But the rate review isn’t going to happen until the next budget cycle. What do we do in the interim?”
Actually increasing these rates, he said, would allow wages to be at a competitive rate in order to recruit and retain social workers.
“We’re not asking to be crazy rich,” Malki said. “Just compensated better.”
Low pay has already resulted in low staff retention rates at the Department of Human Services. According to a staffing report to the General Assembly in January, there were 659 total staffers for the state agency, a deficit of 114 job vacancies.
Nonprofits haven’t fared well either. Sinnott said there are currently around 25 vacancies at his organization.
“We can always fit more people in, but they just aren’t coming,” Malki said.
The staffing shortage has led to long waits for service. Beth Bixby, the CEO of Tides Family Services, noted that there are 84 families on her organization’s waitlist.
“We’re a large organization statewide, but 84 families who are waiting for help is just unnecessary,” she said at the rally. “It’s leaving families without support and demand is increasing.”
This shortage makes it so police and other emergency personnel are the ones who respond to calls that are better suited for social workers. Bixby said parents are also taking their kids to emergency rooms as a “last resort” for mental health treatment since there is “no other assistance for them.”
“And no parent wants to sit in the ED all night,” Bixby said.
If nothing is done heading into the next fiscal year, North Kingstown Rep. Julie Casimiro said Rhode Island will see a “health and human services tsunami.”
“We are in a health and human services crisis right now,” she said. “Everything is going to come tumbling down on us on July 1 if we don’t act right now.”
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