Sisolak asked to make mental health worker pay competitive with ‘other local employers’

Hiring stymied by pay less than Walmart and Amazon, says Gov’s commission 

By: - October 14, 2021 5:02 am

“Our state’s salary cap for front line staff working with the intellectually disabled and psychiatrically ill adults is far below that of large local employers such as Amazon and Walmart,” says a letter the commission sent to Gov. Steve Sisolak.  (Photo by Ronda Churchill for the Dept. of Labor.)

A law that limits the pay of some state government employees to 95% of what the governor earns is challenging Nevada’s mental health system to recruit workers, according to a letter to be reviewed and approved to send to Gov. Steve Sisolak Thursday by the Governor’s Commission on Behavioral Health. 

“Our state’s salary cap for front line staff working with the intellectually disabled and psychiatrically ill adults is far below that of large local employers such as Amazon and Walmart,” says the letter to Sisolak.  

Sisolak’s salary is $149,573 a year. Ninety-five percent of that is $142,094.  A legislative fix presented this year to increase the cap to 150% went nowhere.

The Current’s review of reports submitted last month by state mental health facilities reveals a struggle to fill 351 vacant positions, some of which are limited in pay by the cap. 

“The Division of Public and Behavioral Health continues to actively work to recruit qualified applicants and fill positions at the State’s facilities,” state spokeswoman Shannon Litz said in a statement to the Current. “The Division advertises in professional journals and through recruiting websites to reach more candidates.”

“Nevada’s Lake’s Crossing Center, Northern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services, Sierra Regional Center and Rural Regional Center all shared that they are suffering significant staffing shortages,” says the nine-member commission’s letter to Sisolak. 

Lake’s Crossing Center in Sparks reported 10 vacancies as of the end of June, including two Forensic Specialists, four Licensed Psychologist 1 positions, one Social Worker II, one Psychiatric Caseworker, and two Psychiatric Nurse II positions.  

But Litz says Lakes Crossing “currently has 21 vacancies for a 18.26% vacancy rate. Of the vacant positions, 67% are peace officer or licensed professional positions vacant for longer than 90 days.”

“Nursing positions are difficult to fill due to compensation disparities with hospitals in the local area,” says the report.  

The report cites a “salary disparity” for the psychologist and forensic psychologist positions.  

“The salary disparity is not unique to Lake’s Crossing Center but is a statewide issue in state employment recruitment for Licensed Psychologists,” the report says. “It is a more unique issue to the Reno area with its proximity to California and the higher salaries offered in California. The higher rent/housing prices in Reno when compared to the Las Vegas area are also a factor.”

Northern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services, the state’s community health system in the north, reported nine vacant administrative positions in addition to nearly five dozen medical staff positions.

“There is a shortage of qualified behavioral health providers, specifically in the areas of nursing, social work, psychiatry and psychology,” NNAMH’s report says.  

State spokeswoman Litz reports Dini Townsend Hospital, the intake facility for NNAMHS, “has 27 vacancies with a 37% vacancy rate. Of those vacancies, one-third are licensed professional positions and mental health technicians.”

“The state’s other adult facilities: Stein Forensic Hospital, Southern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services, Sierra Regional Center, and Desert Regional Center, all expressed similar difficulties regarding both recruiting and retaining staff,” the commission wrote to Sisolak. 

Stein Forensic Hospital in Las Vegas reported 22 Forensic Specialist vacancies and five nurse vacancies. 

But Litz says Stein and Rawson Neal Hospitals in Clark County "have 111 vacancies for a 15.6% vacancy rate. Half are licensed professional positions including peace officers (forensic specialists), mental health technicians and nurses and 66 have been vacant for more than 90 days."

Southern Nevada Mental Health Services, the central source for community services in Las Vegas, reported 136 full-time equivalent vacant positions as of June 30.  The agency filled 47 positions during the second quarter. 

Sierra Regional Center, which provides services to people with disabilities in Washoe County,   reported 10 vacancies.  

“Due to staffing shortages in our area we have several providers who are on the brink of not being able to sufficiently staff their homes,” the agency wrote. “They are utilizing overtime and many of their recruitment efforts are only bringing in a few staff.” 

Desert Regional Center in Las Vegas reported 58 vacancies at the end of July. The agency was having difficulties finding a bi-lingual Spanish-speaking psychologist and service coordinators.   

“Community supported living homes have had to close due to their inability to recruit and retain staff, leaving vulnerable Nevadans without a home,” says the letter from the commission to Sisolak.  “In order to support our fellow Nevadans, who have the greatest need for assistance due to their psychiatric and intellectual disability, we, the Governor’s Commission on Behavioral Health, strongly urge you to raise the state salary caps for our critical front-line staff to match a living wage, such as that provided by other local employers.”

Note: This story was updated with additional information from the state.

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Dana Gentry
Dana Gentry

Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.