AUGUSTA — The state Department of Health and Human Services gave recently hired child protective services caseworkers raises of as much as 9 percent last week to boost morale and reduce turnover, according to internal emails.

An email sent Thursday from Therese Cahill-Low, director of the Office of Child and Family Services, to caseworkers and other employees details the pay raises for 135 employees. A copy of the email was in a news release issued Monday by the Maine State Employees Association, SEIU Local 1989, the union that represents the caseworkers and other public employees.

The raises, retroactive to Aug. 10, were awarded despite a wage freeze for state employees that has been in effect since 2009. And they follow budget cuts and a restructuring in the DHHS.

Some Democrats said that giving raises to one set of public employees while overlooking others could set a bad precedent.

It was not immediately clear whether Gov. Paul LePage approved of the raises or even knew about them in advance. His office did not respond to requests for comment. DHHS spokesman John Martins said Cahill-Low was not available for comment.

Union President Ginette Rivard said she hopes the raises are a sign of better things to come for all state employees.

“This pay raise is an important first step by this administration in showing that it recognizes the important work performed by state workers,” Rivard said in a statement. “We hope that this signals a new beginning in labor relations with the administration, and all state workers can begin to share in the state’s improving financial situation.”

LePage and the state’s biggest public union have sparred continuously since the Republican governor took office two years ago. The MSEA and the state still have not ratified a new collective bargaining agreement, and the matter has been stalled by legal maneuvering and public sniping from both sides. Negotiations are expected to resume next week.

According to Cahill-Low’s email, all 135 caseworkers who were at step 1 or step 2 moved up to step 3, getting raises of as much as 9 percent. Caseworkers at step 1 earn $16.39 per hour; those at step 3 earn $17.88.

All newly hired caseworkers in the Office of Child and Family Services will start at step 3.

The changes could add more than $400,000 a year to the state budget, although Martins said he didn’t know exactly what the overall impact would be.

The raises apparently were prompted by a series of conversations among Cahill-Low, DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew and caseworkers throughout the state who expressed concerns.

In a follow-up email from Cahill-Low to employees Monday morning, she explained in greater detail why the salaries were increased.

“We have program administrators and central office staff doing supervised visits and assessments so the work can get done,” she wrote. “Assigned reports were coming in left and right, we have children dying and others in really bad situations, and we were struggling to meet our time frames.”

Cahill-Low and Mayhew began contacting caseworkers in May, not long after the death of 10-week-old Ethan Henderson of Arundel. The infant’s father, Gordon Collins-Faunce, 23, told police that he picked up his son by the head, held him there for more than a minute and then threw him against a chair two days before he died, authorities said. Collins-Faunce is awaiting trial for murder.

An autopsy showed that the boy had suffered injuries before his death, including a broken arm when he was just a month old. Officials also confirmed that a day care provider reported that Henderson’s twin brother and 3-year-old half sister had injuries or illness that were not treated.

It still is not clear whether those initial injuries were properly reported, but Cahill-Low has said that the case highlighted the need for better reporting of suspected abuse or neglect.

The Office of Child and Family Services has 660 employees, 365 of whom are caseworkers. Fifty-three of those positions are vacant.

In her email, Cahill-Low said the turnover rate for caseworkers in her office doubled from 8 percent in 2008 to 16 percent in 2011. Additionally, the number of caseworkers who have left within the first two years has gone up dramatically. Of the 37 caseworkers who have left or been terminated this year, 68 percent were on the first or second pay step.

Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, said he has seen such targeted pay raises in the past.

“In departments that have challenges with recruitment and retention, we’ve seen management initiate a change,” he said. “So it sounds to me like they are addressing this issue.”

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the lead Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, had a different take.

“Democrats have known for a long time that there was understaffing in the area and that it was creating safety concerns,” she said. Rotundo said she is not upset with the raises but is concerned that they could create animosity among public workers.

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell 

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