- Associated Press - Sunday, March 8, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Despite improvements, a state center for developmentally disabled Nebraskans is again struggling with complaints that its employees are overworked.

Employee overtime at the Beatrice State Developmental Center soared in the final months of 2014, according to a report to lawmakers obtained by The Associated Press.

Workers logged 19,220 hours of overtime in the fourth quarter of 2014, a 39 percent increase over the same period the previous year. Roughly one-third of the center’s jobs were deemed “vacant” as of the end of last year.

Advocates for the center’s residents stress that conditions have vastly improved since 2009, when one resident died due to neglect. The center regained federal certification after losing it several years ago, and the U.S. Department of Justice could be close to ending its oversight after uncovering hundreds of cases of abuse and neglect.

But the increase in work hours has prompted some workers to complain and raised new concerns about turnover among the staff, which cares for residents with physical and intellectual disabilities. Burnout and a lack of training were identified as major causes of past abuse and neglect.

“It really does concern us,” said Carl Eskridge, a deputy state ombudsman who has fielded several recent worker complaints. “This was the kind of thing we saw prior to the problems from several years ago. When you’ve got that many people working those kinds of hours, it’s not good for anybody.”

The overtime and turnover were driven by several factors, including the stress of working with severely disabled people and a strict abuse policy, said Ted Buri, contract administrator for the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, a state employee union.

Buri said the zero-tolerance policy for abuse triggers an immediate suspension or reassignment while the matter is investigated, which can take weeks.

Although the policy protects residents from legitimate physical and verbal abuse, Buri said it also has been applied to minor infractions such as speaking in a harsh tone or swearing. Employees who witness an incident are also suspended. The suspensions result in more overtime for employees who have to pick up the workload.

“You’re working in a high-stress environment, and you’re scared that you’ll do something that will get you written up,” he said. “People that are working under fear and pressure are more likely to make mistakes. The smallest thing gets you sent home, and that creates overtime for others.”

State administrators say the overtime spiked due to recent suspensions, holiday vacations and workers with long-term illnesses. A quality improvement team is evaluating what caused the overtime and seeking to address employee concerns, said Jodi Fenner, acting director of the state’s Division of Developmental Disabilities.

“It’s very important to retain staff,” Fenner said. “We recruit good people and want to keep them.”

Although one-third of the positions were considered vacant, Fenner said the actual number of unfilled jobs was lower. The report counts some positions that will never be refilled, such as those assigned to buildings now closed.

The center had 116 residents and 576 permanent and on-call employees as of Friday - roughly five employees for each resident. Kathie Osterman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the ratio has remained fairly consistent over the last year.

Nebraska lawmakers voted last month to retain a legislative committee that investigated problems at the center. The committee was scheduled to dissolve, but Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha said senators need to keep watch at least until the U.S. Department of Justice stops monitoring the facility.

“I think there’s been progress, but I don’t the situation has been fixed,” said Krist, who served on the oversight committee.

The earlier problems prompted state officials to divide the center into five smaller, independently licensed care facilities. They also reduced the number of residents from about 300 to the current 116 by moving more into community-based programs as providers became available.

The zero-tolerance abuse policy has helped catch lingering problems. The facility reported 69 allegations of abuse or neglect in 2013, which led to 74 employees getting suspended. Twelve of those employees were later fired, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

In the first six months of last year - the most recent numbers available - 35 employees were suspended over 23 allegations. Four were fired.

Despite its history, many current residents at the Beatrice State Developmental Center are thriving, said Dee Valenti of Omaha, whose 26-year-old son Donny has lived there since 2007.

Valenti said her son has a good life, despite his diagnosis of bipolar disorder and behavioral health problems. With support from staff, Donny Valenti delivers newspapers around Beatrice, works as a janitor on the center’s campus and escorts other residents who can’t transport themselves.

The current staffing problems are prevalent at such centers because the job is so challenging, said Valenti, who thinks oversight should continue but doesn’t believe abuse and neglect are major problems.

“Those of us who have loved ones on campus, we choose for them to live there right now,” said Valenti, who is also a guardian for two other residents. “There’s still a very strong core staff. It is very hard to find good, quality direct-care staff, but that doesn’t make (the facilities) bad. You can’t get blood from a turnip.”

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