It’s a field you don’t get into for the money — behavioral health care. But with rising costs placing more of a burden on staff, things could soon reach a breaking point.
“We are a residential reintegration program," said Angela Angora, director of reintegration at Cazenovia Recovery Systems Inc. "We house 24 individuals that are at risk of homeless or are homeless and have a substance use disorder.”
When you’re running a 24/7 operation, you need a lot of manpower, but when people are overworked and underpaid, it’s hard to hold onto them.
“We'll lose staff because they'll come to us, we'll give them the experience, and then they leave because they will find higher paying positions somewhere else,” Angora explained.
Angora, who also helps run Unity House, is one of many behavioral health care workers calling for another increase in the state’s cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA.
“Many staff have to work one or two extra shifts per week for the overtime just to be able to make ends meet," Angora said. "I have staff that have told me that they make $12 too much to be eligible for SNAP benefits.”
“It presents a real hardship for people to stay in this field,” said Greg Sykes, assistant director of reintegration at Cazenovia Recovery Systems Inc.
He knows it's important work.
“[I] had a brother who died from the disease of addiction. He was a heroin addict," he said. "When addiction starts, the ripple spreads out and it impacts family and then it goes into your neighborhood and then into the community, the city, the state and now it's all over the world.
Sykes also knows the struggles facing employees trying to make a difference.
“When I first started in 2008 as a counselor, I was making $10.50 an hour," he recalled. "I remember one particular hardship I had was the car needed new tires and I couldn't afford to buy a tire with one paycheck.”
Even with low pay and risks of burnout, people in this line of work are happy to help fill gaps here and there, but things are reaching a tipping point.
“I will say we are on the cusp of something that needs to change,” Sykes said.
The job is not easy.
“So many of the individuals that we treat aren't just coming to us with just a substance use disorder," Angora explained. "Many of them come to us with underlying trauma.”
“Trying to help somebody not to die like my brother did from the disease of addiction," said Sykes. "If we can help one person not do that, I count that as a win."
“People do recover," added Angora. "They can recover."
That job is something they’re happy to take on, as long as they feel valued in a way that goes beyond words.
"You don't get into this field if you want to be rich," said Sykes.
In just the last year, Sykes says two or three people left because of burnout or stress. Staffing shortages also impact care for residents, whether just keeping things consistent or growing into specialized treatments.