MSEA-SEIU members who work as Adult Protective Caseworkers at Maine DHHS testified Feb. 27, on their own time and as private citizens, before the Maine Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee in support of legislation ensuring wage equity among Maine DHHS caseworkers.
The caseworkers asked the HHS Committee to support LD 428, An Act to Establish Wage and Employment Parity Between Adult and Child Protective Caseworkers in the Department of Health and Human Services, sponsored by Representative Lois Galgay Reckitt. The legislation requires DHHS to provide at least one week of training to new employees who work in adult protective services. It also provides funding for the recruitment and retention of employees in Adult Protective Services Caseworker positions and Adult Protective Services Caseworker Supervisor positions with a $5 per wage-hour stipend payment – similar to the stipend payment state legislators approved last summer for Child Protective Services caseworkers.
MSEA-SEIU Member and Adult Protective Services Caseworker Dena Kenney has worked as an HHS caseworker for 29 years – including 24 years in the Office of Child and Family Services. She transferred to the Office of Adult and Disability Services in 2013.
“The work of assessing abuse, neglect and exploitation is similar throughout the lifespan,” Dena said. “I currently work with children and parents that I worked with in OCFS, but now they are adults and elderly. I work side by side with OCFS caseworkers transitioning foster and adopted children with developmental disabilities and severe mental health issues to the adult system. Together, we ensure youth are safe and that their needs are met.
“As Adult Protective Caseworkers,” Dena explained, “we are exposed to firearms, bug infestations, and homes that pose a hazard due to human waste and garbage. The painful, but necessary, process of filing a court petition, proving a client is not safe to be in their home, or removing a family member who is not a suitable private guardian, is no less difficult when the client is an adult. In fact, the legal standard is higher in probate guardianship than a child protective action.”
MSEA-SEIU Member and Adult Protective Services Caseworker Cindy Karolides told the committee about the everyday dangers she and her fellow caseworkers experience, including exposure to methamphetamine, or meth, labs in some homes. She urged the committee to support LD 428 to help address recruitment and retention issues at the Maine Office of Adult and Disability Services.
MSEA-SEIU Member and Adult Protective Caseworker JB Whipple told the committee that Adult Protective Caseworkers are dealing with four key issues: recruitment and retention, staffing levels, increasing workloads, and the lack of adequate training.
“Recruitment and retention has become an issue recently at OADS (the Office of Adult and Disability Services),” JB said. “The OCFS (Office of Child and Family Services) legislation at the end of the last session, while welcome and very much needed, had some unintended consequences for OADS. The legislation inadvertently split the department up, particularly the caseworker line. As a person who has worked both jobs, it is my opinion that the jobs are remarkably similar, as is the population we work with.”
Continuing, JB said, “OADS is beginning to lose some workers to OCFS, because of the disparity in pay. New workers applying from the outside are choosing Child Protective over Adult Protective for the same reasons, and workers from OCFS are no longer interested, and in fact have withdrawn application to transfer over to OADS. As a result, we are having difficulty in filling the positions we have open.”
The Adult Protective Caseworkers told the committee their workloads have been increasing. “When comparing the numbers to previous years, it is clear that the numbers are rising consistently at an alarming rate, and we are in need of more caseworkers,” JB said. “Some of the reasons for this increase are an aging population, a societal change in our population, the opioid crisis, and cuts to Section 17, which paid for substance abuse and mental health services. We are now getting referrals for mental health issues in addition to issues of abuse and neglect to vulnerable adult populations.”
Other caseworkers also shared their personal knowledge of the similarities between the jobs of Adult Protective Caseworkers and Child Protective Caseworkers, and the urgent need for pay equity between the caseworker positions.
“I work as an investigator for Adult Protective Services for adults with disabilities in the Office of Aging and Disability Services, and hold a license in social work,” MSEA-SEIU Member Regina Krause said. “Previously I worked as a child protective investigator and would like to address the similarities in the caseworker positions.”
All caseworkers at Maine DHHS, Regina said, work in the community with adults with significant mental health issues and violent criminal behavior, and with adults who are deemed incapacitated due to disability – cognitive, medical or physical. “Similar to young children,” Regina said, “many of our clients are nonverbal or incapable of confirming abuse on their own behalf. Our workloads are equally overwhelmingly and are increasing steadily with little to no training on working with this vulnerable population.”
Also testifying in support of LD 428 was MSEA-SEIU Director of Politics and Legislation Jeff McCabe. He provided the committee with copies of our survey in which 83 percent of the over 1,000 state workers who responded identified recruitment and training as a problem in their worksites.