Eastern State Hospital in James City County is one of Virginia’s eight publicly run mental hospitals, which have struggled with understaffing an an influx of psychiatric admissions. The new agency head announced a strategic plan this week to try pull the system out of the crisis. (Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services)
At a meeting last week, Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources John Littel made an eye-opening remark about the state’s understaffed and overstressed mental health facilities.
“We’re losing a lot of people to Chick-fil-A,” Littel told the General Assembly’s Joint Commission on Health Care. “And hopefully the budget will help with that.”
The staffing issues in Virginia’s mental-health facilities are no secret, but Littel’s comment stood out as a stark anecdote about the dire working conditions for some state employees helping with the crucial societal task of caring for the mentally ill.
In an interview Tuesday, Littel, an appointee of Gov. Glenn Youngkin and former executive with the Magellan health care company, said broader worker shortages have enabled the fast-food industry and others to offer more appealing jobs to state mental-health workers who have had to show up to relatively low-paying, difficult jobs “all through the pandemic.”
“Part of it is some of those people do get paid less than you might get in fast food or Target or Walmart or something. And it’s not as stressful,” Littel said, adding that the state’s mental health workers are “doing lifesaving work every day.”
He said he was mostly referring to workers who may be in housekeeping or direct support staff roles and might make around $13 to $18 an hour. Recent Virginia job postings for Chick-fil-A, which advertises all workers get Sundays off when its restaurants are closed, offered similar pay, with some locations offering starting pay of $15 an hour.
According to the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Services, average pay for entry-level direct care jobs currently ranges from a little under $12 an hour to about $17 an hour, which works out to roughly $24,700 to $35,500 per year.
Broader worker shortages, Littel said, have prompted the fast-food industry to get more aggressive on raising pay and sign-on bonuses. He said he couldn’t venture a guess at the number of state employees who have left for fast-food jobs.
“I’m just sort of referencing the anecdotes I hear from people,” he said, specifying he was making an “illustrative point” that wasn’t meant as a shot at Chick-fil-A.
Littel said he’s hopeful the upcoming state budget compromise will include significant new investments that will allow for better pay and conditions for the mental health workforce.
“The people that work in the system are all heroes,” he said. “For people to choose that as a specialty and commit to that, that’s really important. They’re not what’s wrong with the system.”