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Citing low pay and crushing caseloads, Kentucky governor gives social workers a raise

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Ryland Barton
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Kentucky’s social workers and family support staff will receive a 10% raise starting Dec. 16, Gov. Andy Beshear announced during a press conference Wednesday.

The decision comes as the Kentucky Department for Community Based Services continues to see a growing exodus of employees, creating unmanageable caseloads for social workers who serve the state’s most vulnerable children and families.

“Each and every one of our social workers is absolutely essential and we need to make sure there are a lot more of you,” Beshear said. “To do that, we need to take immediate action.”

The state will bump up pay grades for nearly 4,000 employees by allocating $15 million from the current budget to increase their salaries by 10%. The current starting pay for social workers in Kentucky is $34,000 a year, a wage that forces many workers to take on additional jobs and apply for state assistance.

“For far too long, our social workers have not been monetarily valued as they should be,” Beshear said. ”Low pay, long hours, crushing caseloads have led to poor morale and high turnover in addition to a backlog of cases.”

Since the start of 2021, nearly 650 social workers out of a 4,300-person staff have resigned from their positions with the state. High caseloads, financial concerns and poor working conditions led many social workers to protest at the Kentucky Capitol last month, where they urged the governor to take action.

At a legislative committee meeting in November, social services commissioner Marta Miranda-Straub said the department had gone from “bleeding to hemorrhaging,” with a single social worker having to take on an average of 26 cases at a time. In Jefferson County, that amount is doubled.

“Our clients are in crisis,” she said. “[The department] cannot be in crisis at the same time.”

In addition to the pay raise, Beshear said the Cabinet for Health and Family Services would immediately launch a pilot program to expedite the hiring process for social services employees. Qualified social workers and family support staff who apply will be hired within seven days. The state needs approximately 900 more social workers to get caseloads to a manageable level.

“We are in dire shape. And it’s gotten rougher every single day,” Beshear said. “We do not have the number of social workers we need for the vulnerable folks that need us.”

Beshear said he will also propose a student loan forgiveness plan for social service workers in the 2022 budget and will recommend that employees receive “hero pay” for being frontline workers during the pandemic.

Eric Friedlander, secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, echoed that sentiment, calling social workers “everyday heroes.”

“You’ve made a difference here,” he said. “You make a difference in the lives of every Kentuckians and you come in contact with. You do it as a part of your daily job.”

Shawnte West, a social worker from Jefferson County, said during the press conference that she appreciates the attention being given to the issue and hopes that the states will continue to take steps to protect and value social workers.

“Too often social service providers and staff interchange roles with those that we serve in receiving food stamps, cash, aid and medical assistance, just to keep our heads above water. And that should never be,” she said. “Thank you for this glimmer of hope today, to retain, maintain and build a workforce that loves Kentucky as much as we do.”