Senate discusses veterans employees at interim study

With the 2013 legislative session only four months away, the Oklahoma House and Senate are in the midst of interim study season, when they discuss matters that could become major policy focuses next spring.

On Thursday, the state Senate’s Committee on Veterans and Military Affairs met to discuss the study on the War Veterans Commission and Veterans Centers. Focusing on what has been going on within the veteran’s centers across the state, the committee listened to representatives from seven of the state’s veteran’s center administrators.

Topics related to veteran’s center issues ranging from care and treatment of residents to high turnover rates amongst nurses to the difficulties faced by administrators when it comes to hiring and retaining staff.

Hiring well is a mission of all of the administrators. While the system already has a core group of dedicated staff who love their jobs, retention is a problem. Katherine Kreizenbeck, Clinton administrator, said they have a very hard time keeping quality employees because the oil business is booming and oil-related jobs pay much better. Of the 226 positions her facility is authorized to staff, only 187 are filled. That makes proper care for veterans difficult as staffs have to spread thin as a result.

Another, long-term problem is keeping young employees and incentivizing them properly so they will stick around. Regeana McCracken of the Ardmore branch said that the younger generation of employees does not seem to appreciate benefits such as health care and retirement, making it hard to compete for those younger workers because private-sector salaries are significantly higher than those connected to state jobs. Right now, the centers hire employees on a temporary basis at a rate around $11 an hour. But upon making employees permanent, pay drops a small amount to help offset the benefits package. Several administrators mentioned that once that happened, employees would leave for a higher paycheck somewhere else. The general theme of the meeting was that low pay issues are negatively impacting the care of our state’s veterans.

Roy Griffith, administrator at the Talihina location, said that trying to recruit good Certified Nursing Assistants is a challenge. He is hopeful increasing pay for CNAs would “help us retain the good ones.” He added that OPEA will be a strong ally to help raise pay for entry-level employees. That’s important, because the Talihina location has a 31 percent turnover rate in the CNA department. Rates vary across the state, but turnover percentages are an issue at other outposts as well.

Issues surrounding the state’s veteran’s centers and how OPEA can assist in solving matters related to retention of employees will be a focus. The next meeting of this committee will be Oct. 9.

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