AUSTIN (KXAN) – The Health and Human Services Commission is raising salaries and starting wages at state mental hospitals and state-supported living centers to shore up chronic understaffing, turnover and bed shortages, the agency announced Tuesday.

“Increasing starting salaries will bolster HHSC’s recruitment and hiring of prospective employees, help us get fully staffed, and serve more people in need,” said Scott Schalchlin, deputy executive commissioner for HHSC’s Health and Specialty Care System, in a news release.

HHSC is trying to fill nearly 4,000 vacancies, including more than 1,800 in state hospitals and 2,100 in state-supported living centers, or SSLCs.

A registered nurse with three years’ experience would start as high as $90,000, while the previous average salary for that level was $67,000. There are 500 nursing positions open across the state, HHSC said.

Psychiatric nursing assistants and direct support professionals would start between $17.50 and $21 an hour for positions that previously had starting average salaries of $14.90 to $15.70 per hour. Food service workers could begin with pay as high as $13.94 an hour for jobs that had an average starting wage of $11.02, according to HHSC.

KXAN has reported extensively on problems caused by HHSC’s staffing woes. More than 770 beds are currently offline at state hospitals. Without those beds available, more than 2,500 people with criminal charges, and found incompetent to stand trial, have been waitlisted and left in county jails for months or years until a bed becomes available, according to the most current state data available from December.

State hospitals serve individuals with mental illness. About two-thirds of state hospital beds are used for people involved in the criminal court system, and the remaining third are assigned to civil commitments, according to state data.

On March 1, salary increases will go into effect for 7,855 full-time state hospital positions and nearly 11,800 SSLC positions. SSLCs provide services and support for developmentally and intellectually disabled people. There are 13 SSLCs across the state.

Positions are available across Texas, including Abilene, Austin, Big Spring, Brenham, Corpus Christi, Denton, El Paso, Kerrville, Lubbock, Lufkin, Mexia, Richmond, Harlingen, Rusk, San Angelo, San Antonio, Terrell, Vernon, Waco and Wichita Falls.

Longstanding problem

Staffing problems have dogged HHSC for years. Bed shortages and staffing shortfalls ballooned with the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. Last January, HHSC announced signing bonuses for certain positions, including $5,000 for new registered nurses, $3,500 for certain licensed vocational nurses and $2,500 for psychiatric nursing assistants.

Near the time HHSC announced those bonuses, Schalchlin told an advisory committee they were struggling to hire because it was receiving fewer applications. Prior to the pandemic, HHSC was receiving about 15,000 applications per month. That number had dropped to about 6,000 in early 2022, he said.

Among state agencies with more than 1,000 employees, HHSC had the third-highest turnover. HHSC trailed only the Juvenile Justice Department and Department of Criminal Justice, which operates state prisons, according to a study of state agency turnover by the State Auditor’s Office released in March 2022.

HHSC had an average headcount of just under 37,000 employees in fiscal year 2021 and an overall turnover rate of 27%. The jobs with the highest turnover within HHSC were direct support professionals with 54% percent, psychiatric nursing assistants with 50% and nurses with 25%, the state audit shows.

According to HHSC exit surveys, the most common reasons for leaving the agency were retirement, poor working conditions, environment, and better pay and benefits elsewhere, the audit found.

HHSC job postings