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Idaho Health and Welfare asks for 24 additional social workers, makes overtime changes

Idaho State Capitol - 2021
Otto Kitsinger
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The Idaho State Capitol building can be seen past the old Ada County Courthouse in Boise on March 20, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Legislators questioned director about child welfare challenges at legislative budget meeting

Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen presented a budget request with 24 additional social worker positions for the Child Welfare Division on Monday morning, an increase of three positions from Gov. Brad Little’s recommendation of 21 workers. The department has also received a statewide exemption that will allow social workers to be compensated for overtime hours, in addition to a pay increase for case workers and safety assessors and reimbursement increases for foster families.

Members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee peppered Jeppesen with questions related to social worker and foster care shortages the department has faced over the last few months.

The department reported a vacancy rate of 7.4% in the Child Welfare Division, which is the equivalent of 30.5 full-time personnel. Those vacancies have many explanations, including retirement, but it is causing a strain on the system, Jeppesen said.

“I acknowledge the issues and reassure you that we are engaged in problem solving,” Jeppesen said.

Rep. Colin Nash, D-Boise, mentioned the Idaho Capital Sun’s previous reporting on the issue in a question to the director, saying he was probably not the only one who read the series of stories and found it very concerning.

“In the back of my mind, I see these requests, which feel necessary to kind of boost what’s going on there, but it seems like there are deeper cultural issues that are affecting recruitment and retention within the division, and I’m wondering if you’ve had an opportunity since that series came out to engage with staff there to get to the bottom of how we can fix the culture in this division,” Nash said.

Jeppesen said after the articles were published, he read nearly all of the comments from an engagement survey conducted within the division in October, and the responses were honest about the working conditions in the department. Jeppesen said he has also held town halls with individuals about their concerns.

“I will tell you that the Child Welfare staff … are very open about what their concerns are, which I greatly appreciate, and that was very helpful to hear the concerns on their mind,” Jeppesen said.

The frustration is most concentrated in the Treasure Valley, he said, but the problem is statewide. A top concern Jeppesen heard from staff about was overtime hours. Department staff asked the Idaho Department of Human Resources to create an exemption for social workers and safety assessors to be paid for overtime rather than earning comp time, which workers often max out and still can’t take time off because their workload does not allow for it.

“So we have made that change, we have switched to now paying overtime for the folks as they put in those extra hours,” Jeppesen said.

There is a list of concerns the leadership team is addressing, he said, which will be shared with the legislative committee.

The request for 24 additional personnel is a cost of nearly $1.8 million on an annual basis and includes a 7% pay increase for case workers and safety assessors in the amount of $921,200 on top of the standard state change in employee compensation.

The budget also includes $6.1 million to increase foster care reimbursement rates, which Jeppesen said would help families to care for foster children, particularly as housing and other costs have increased in Idaho during the past two years.