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Saturday, October 30, 2021

Florida lawmakers promise cash relief to prisons and nursing homes racked by the pandemic

Posted By and on Sat, Oct 30, 2021 at 2:13 PM

click to enlarge There are 691 licensed nursing homes in Florida, with an estimated 71,000 residents. - PHOTO VIA ADOBE STOCK
  • Photo via Adobe Stock
  • There are 691 licensed nursing homes in Florida, with an estimated 71,000 residents.

Amid fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and worker shortages, Florida lawmakers next week will consider proposals to inject nearly $100 million into nursing homes and boost pay of state correctional officers.

The Joint Legislative Budget Commission, a panel of House and Senate members that can make mid-year budget decisions, is slated to take up the issues during a meeting Thursday.

The Florida Agency for Health Care Administration has proposed providing $99.5 million in state and federal money to nursing homes over a three-month period through increased Medicaid payment rates. In a request to the Legislature, the agency said the money would help nursing homes “in their current financial crisis caused by significant occupancy declines and a tight labor market with increasing wages and shortage of staff resources.”

Meanwhile, the state Department of Corrections is asking the legislative panel to sign off on closing the New River Correctional Institution in Bradford County and shutting down 73 dorms at other facilities throughout the state. Savings would be used to provide higher pay and bonuses to correctional workers.

The prison system has long struggled with low pay and high turnover among employees. Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, has pushed to consolidate prisons as a way to free up money that could go to worker pay.

In a phone interview Friday with the News Service of Florida, Simpson called the Department of Corrections proposal “a step forward in the right direction.”

“The most important part here is that people that are working are going to get immediate raises,” Simpson said.

The nursing home proposal would boost Medicaid payment rates for three months, with the rates then reverting to normal levels.

The nursing home industry says additional money is needed to help deal with worker shortages and a dropoff in the numbers of nursing home residents during the pandemic. Occupancy was about 78 percent in mid-October, compared to 88 to 89 percent before the pandemic, according to industry numbers.

The Florida Health Care Association, the largest nursing-home group in the state, released a statement Friday that cited the “tremendous strain the pandemic has put on Florida's nursing centers.”

“The workforce shortages, combined with the increased costs of continuing to operate in a COVID-19 environment, (have) plagued the long term care sector for nearly two years,” the statement said. “The financial support offered by the Legislative Budget Commission amendment will bring much-needed relief and help providers begin addressing their staffing challenges so no resident is left without the care they need.”

The Department of Corrections proposal would use about $67.8 million in savings to provide salary increases and bonuses for correctional workers. The proposal would increase base pay by at least $5,000 per year, with employees at the lowest end of the wage scale receiving the biggest boosts.

“I think it’s a good starting point. It’s better than the news that we didn’t get nothing,” James Baiardi, who leads the state corrections chapter of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, told the News Service. “I don’t think it goes far enough to solve the problem, but you have to be appreciative of what they (the Legislature) gave you now.”

Under the plan, base pay for correctional officers would start at $38,750, a nearly 16 percent hike over the current $33,500. Base pay would go from $36,850 to $42,100 for sergeants; from $40,535 to $45,535 for lieutenants; and from $44,589 to $49,589 for captains.

The Department of Corrections is also asking for authority to hand out one-time bonuses of $3,000 for new hires, $1,500 for correctional officers and $3,000 for probation officers.

Raises wouldn’t be as hefty for veteran correctional workers who earn more than base pay rates. They would get annual salary boosts of $1,500, according to the plan.

“People who’ve been on the job longer may not see as good a raise as some of the newer people, and that’s why we’re advocating for the next raise to address the retention and compression and to look at raising the salaries of the veteran staff,” Baiardi said.

With many prisons built more than a half-century ago, discussions about closing and consolidating prisons have brewed for years. The New River facility proposed for closure was one of two prisons, along with Baker Correctional Institution, temporarily shuttered in August because of staffing shortages. The corrections department also announced in August it was keeping closed Cross City Correctional Institution, which had been evacuated earlier because of flooding in Dixie County.

Hundreds of dorms and dozens of work camps have also been mothballed due to the worker crunch.

The new proposal also involves doing away with 1,290 full-time vacant positions, though the Joint Legislative Budget Commission doesn’t have the authority to permanently eliminate the jobs. That’s something lawmakers could do during the annual legislative session that begins Jan. 11. Simpson has discussed “reinvesting” funds from eliminated positions toward salary increases.

“Our hope is this is just a start with the raises and then we’ll do additional raises come session time. Clearly, we believe that there’s ample room to shut down another one (prison). But in my opinion it’s a crisis when you’re paying corrections officers $16 an hour,” he said.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Michelle Glady called the proposal up for consideration next week an "interim emergency measure" to help the agency prior to the 2022 session.

A "comprehensive pay plan for all our corrections officers, probation officers, and inspectors ... remains our top priority this legislative session," she said in an email.

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