The Legislature Must Tackle Workforce Challenges that are Hurting Kids

When Comptroller Glenn Hegar recently revealed that the Legislature will have an extra $27 billion available for the 2023 session, he suggested pay raises for state employees as one of the areas where lawmakers should invest the new revenue.

“Making sure that we have good, qualified employees and can retain them,” he said, explaining the goal. “Because you have to have a healthy state government to operate.”

We would add to that: You can’t effectively implement state policies and programs to support kids if you don’t have enough staff — much less qualified, experienced staff — to carry them out. Yet, it seems that nearly every day we learn more about how Texas kids and families are suffering because of vacancies and other workforce challenges at the agencies and providers that the state relies on to support children.

Here’s a sample of major workforce challenges at state agencies affecting Texas kids. 

  • Over 2,000 employees have left DFPS, the parent agency to Child Protective Services (CPS), since the beginning of 2022, making it harder to prevent child abuse and neglect, keep kids safely with their families, and ensure children in the state’s troubled foster care system are safe and supported. The Houston Chronicle reports, “Of the 2,267 employees who left the agency by Aug. 3, about 83 percent of them had quit — the highest voluntary exit rate the department has seen since it became an independent agency in fall 2017.”
  • State-run juvenile justice facilities are “on the brink of collapse,” with youth apparently left to urinate in water bottles because there aren’t even enough staffers to safely let youth go to the restroom. 
  • As of last fall, there were about 1,000 fewer staff at HHSC managing applications and renewals for Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and SNAP compared to 2019, creating delays and barriers for eligible families signing their kids up for health coverage and for food benefits to reduce child hunger. These vacancies leave the state ill-prepared for the millions of Medicaid renewals it will process at the end of the pandemic Public Health Emergency in early 2023.

The workforce challenge also goes beyond state employees. It’s hitting other sectors that the state relies on to deliver important services to Texas kids and families. For example:

  • Foster care providers are understaffed and in some cases resorting to hiring grossly unqualified staff to care for the state’s most vulnerable children.
  • Child care providers have faced longstanding recruitment and retention challenges because early childhood educators make on average $11/hr with little to no benefits. But there has been a 16 percent decline in the already-vulnerable Texas child care workforce since COVID-19. 

Addressing these and other workforce challenges should be a priority for the Legislature and the Governor. Their plans should address the following:

  • As private employers from Walmart to ExxonMobil are raising salaries to compete for workers and keep up with the rising cost of housing and other essentials, state agencies and the community-based organizations they rely on to deliver services must be able to offer competitive compensation.
  • There are policies and working conditions in particular sectors that are hurting morale and driving away professionals, from the transgender investigations and other concerns that are pushing out DFPS employees to the concerns that are driving teachers out of our schools.
  • Community organizations providing Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) services, Local Mental Health Health Authorities, child care, and foster care providers need funding streams that are reliable — not just short-term funds — if they are going to attract, train, and retain the workforce needed to deliver high quality programs and services.
  • Reimbursement rates for intensive services such as residential foster care services (set through Foster Care Rate Modernization) and YES Waiver mental health services must reflect the costs associated caring for children with complex needs and their caregivers.
  • In certain cases, such as the HHSC eligibility system for Medicaid and other programs, investments in technology would allow for more efficient operations that allow agencies to shift staff to other areas that need attention.
  • In some cases, the Legislature needs to help state agencies and community providers fill vacancies, and in other cases lawmakers need to provide funding to create new positions to meet the needs of kids and families.
  • State leaders should make clear that addressing these workforce challenges is a top priority to ensure kids are safe, healthy, and able to thrive in school.

We look forward to collaborating with legislators and state agencies as they work on the next state budget in the weeks and months ahead and as they tackle workforce challenges during the 2023 legislative session.