The Tarrant County Mental Health Authority, which provides care for children and adults with mental illnesses and intellectual and developmental disabilities, has around 500 vacancies, a workforce crisis affecting some of county’s most vulnerable residents.
The My Health My Resources of Tarrant County budget had approximately 2,311 full-time employees in February. Instead, the agency employed 1,809 people that month, according to an MHMR financial report prepared for its board.
MHMR, the county’s mental health provider, is one of 37 similar agencies statewide that form the backbone of Texas’ public mental health system. MHMR offers a range of services, from treating adults with serious mental illnesses to spaces where adults with developmental disabilities can safely spend time and enroll in programs like job training. Agencies like MHMR are grappling with the same labor shortages that other industries are experiencing, except with higher stakes and more complicated funding.
Susan Garnett, CEO of MHMR, said staffing levels were challenging for behavioral health providers statewide. Behavioral health has always been difficult to recruit skilled workers, Garnett said, due to the demands of the job and the wages available.
“We thought we were in troubled waters” before the pandemic, Garnett said.
Now it’s a crisis.
Last summer, the crisis was exemplified by an unusually dramatic exodus of multiple direct service workers. At one of the group homes operated by the agency, a residential employee left the job, who was paying about $11 an hour at the time, for a job at Amazon with higher wages, Garnett said. .
“All the rest of the staff went to apply for jobs and moved to Amazon,” Garnett said.
The group home, one of 11 that MHMR owns and operates, was able to stay open after other workers were relocated and asked to work overtime in the meantime. But Garnett said she used the example to illustrate the crisis that MHMR and other agencies face when it comes to providing direct care to some of the county’s most vulnerable residents.
Shortly after the entire group home staff left to work for Amazon, MHMR’s board of directors agreed to raise starting pay for those positions to $15 an hour, Garnett said. The increase did not completely solve the crisis, but it helped retain some workers and recruit additional employees. The agency also added new employee benefits, such as access to online therapy company Talkspace, as well as one-time employee allowances last year. Garnett said she and other leaders are considering additional programs and benefits to help recruit and retain employees.
“It used to be that an annual award for a staff member was all that was needed,” Garnett said at a board meeting last month. “This is no longer the world we live in.”
Across the state, there is no immediate response to fill the thousands of vacancies in roles such as child care workers, direct service providers and orderlies, and other demanding roles. and generally underpaid who fulfill essential roles within society. In Texas, the median hourly wage for a direct care worker was $10.38 in 2019, according to research by PHI, a nonprofit working for better care for people with disabilities. Direct care providers help people with disabilities or limited abilities with various daily tasks, such as eating and taking medicine, bathing and dressing, and any other help they may need.
“We asked the people in these jobs to serve our most vulnerable people,” Garnett said. “We have become so used to relying on them without paying them the slightest attention. They say, ‘I need attention.
Is the workforce crisis affecting you or someone close to you? Do you work as a direct service provider? Tell us about your experience or send us your questions by calling or texting reporter Ciara McCarthy at 817-203-4391 or emailing [email protected]