A debilitating shortage of high-quality direct-care workers is the latest biggest challenge facing disabled Utahns.

The shortage has become so serious that Utah sent experts from three state government departments — the first such governor's cabinet level partnership anyone can remember — and workers from at least 40 Utah provider groups to three roundtable discussions in three days in Provo, Ogden and Salt Lake.

Also attending was the country's leading expert on recruitment and retention of workers who look after the most vulnerable Americans. In Utah, those workers only make about $8 an hour, or about what the federal minimum wage will be starting July 2009.

"Utah simply isn't doing what it needs to do," Amy Hewitt, a professor at the University of Minnesota Institute on Community Integration, where she directs several federal and state research and care worker evaluation projects. She made her comments to the Deseret Morning News Friday during a break at the roundtable discussion in West Valley.

"An 81 percent turnover rate among (Utah) direct-care workers is not a quality program," Hewitt said. "Quality care is simply not possible when workers are coming and going at a 30 percent higher rate than the national average and four times the 30 percent turnover rate private corporations aim for."

The roundtables are a joint recognition and a joint effort to increase quality as well as interest in doing a very difficult job, said Chuck Bruder, roundtable coordinator and program administrator for the state Division of Services for People With Disabilities.

State lawmakers appropriated $1.1 million to increase care during the upcoming fiscal year. It was half of what care providers, the state Department of Human Services and the governor requested and will reduce by about 100 a waiting list of about 1,850 Utahns who are without services of any kind.

"We saw this coming and we've been working on this for a few years now," Bruder said. Utah has a unique set of problems, including the lowest unemployment rate in the country — less than 3 percent — "and much appreciated but continuously inadequate" funding from the Legislature, he said.

"That combined with a robust economy — you have McDonald's offering between $10.50 and $12.50 to start in some parts of the state — we've got some pretty tough recruitment and retention issues," Bruder said. "Most people who care for the disabled are doing from the heart already and do their jobs very well. This is a step toward getting professional help and establishing professional development so a care provider is viewed more like a professional and less like a servant."

Bruder said Utah is a national leader in one aspect — promotion of "self-administered families," which are allowed to hire and supervise staff that they choose. "We are leagues ahead of other states in that regard."

The roughly 5,000 people who provide support to about 8,000 long-term disabled Utahns does have a bit of an identity crisis relative to other professions. On the health job ladder it's on the same rung of pharmacy aides, cooks and orderlies.

"Calling it a crisis doesn't overstate the situation at all," said Phil Shumway, executive director of Turn Community Services. "It's at least a crisis waiting to happen. We simply don't have enough people to do this work."

The evolution of the disabled from being institutionalized and into communities is a process that's "a bit stuck," Shumway said, noting that wit "We shouldn't be trying to recruit at minimum wage; it puts out a message that our state doesn't care about direct service, and we can't do that to truly our most vulnerable citizens."

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