Mental health staff are leaving to work in fast food outlets like Chick-fil-A, it has been revealed.

Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources John Littel made the eye-opening remark about the state’s understaffed and overburdened mental health facilities at a meeting last week.

Littel told the General Assembly’s Joint Commission on Health Care: “We’re losing a lot of people to Chick-fil-A, and hopefully the budget will help with that.”

Staffing issues in Virginia’s mental-health facilities are well known, but Littel’s comment stood out as a stark example of the difficult working conditions for some state employees who help with the critical task of caring for the mentally ill.

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Littel, a former executive with the Magellan health care company and an appointee of Gov. Glenn Youngkin, said in an interview Tuesday, May 24, that broader worker shortages have enabled the fast-food industry.

He added others offer more appealing jobs to state mental-health workers who have had to do relatively low-paid, difficult jobs “all through the pandemic.”

He said: “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,” adding that the state’s mental health workers are “doing lifesaving work every day.”

He stated that he was primarily referring to employees who work in housekeeping or direct support staff roles and earn as little as between $13 and $18 per hour.

Recent Virginia job postings for Chick-fil-A, which advertises that all employees get Sundays off when the restaurants are closed, offered comparable pay, with some locations starting at $15 an hour.

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According to the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, the average pay for entry-level direct care jobs currently ranges from just under $12 per hour to around $17 per hour, equating 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. 

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.

Source: Virginia Mercury

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