Colorado offers hiring bonus to nurses for behavioral health care

As Colorado continues to grapple with its state behavioral health crisis — too many in need, without enough to give it — state officials are hoping $14,000 will help strengthen the ranks of needed nurses.

The Colorado Department of Human Services is offering that as a hiring bonus to people willing to work in mental health facilities in Pueblo and the Fort Logan facility in Denver. They’re trying to fill some 200 positions that officials said opened as workers pursued pandemic-era pay increases elsewhere and exited due to burnout.

“Because of the nursing shortage, we’ve had 100 beds available, but they’re not open,” Leora Joseph, director of the Office of Behavioral Health within the Colorado Department of Human Services. “This isn’t a bed crisis, it’s a staffing crisis.”

In 2022, for example, Joseph said they would lose multiple nurses every month. They were able to hire just four replacements. To compensate, they relied more on expensive third-party staffing agencies that could also leverage their demand for choicer shifts — helping perpetuate the problem as staff nurses were relegated to what was left, she said.

Hanging over the effort is the ongoing consent degree CDHS is in over long waits for court-ordered mental health examinations. The state faces fines for delays while people who need treatment often languish in jails while they wait for a bed to open up. Joseph is hopeful the hiring bonus will help alleviate some of that pressure and speed up care.

The department is using American Rescue Plan Act money to pay for the program. In the two months since it was unveiled, they’ve been able to hire a dozen to work the hospitals, and dozens more apply, Joseph and Pedro Almeida, deputy executive director at the department, said.

They chalked up the increased interest to the signing bonuses — paid in installments over the hiree’s first several months — but noted that it’s just one step toward easing the problem long-term. They pointed to across-the-board 5% pay raises for state employees passed in the recent budget as a way to help with retention, too.

Colorado faces a nursing shortage statewide. A 2021 study from Mercer found Colorado was top-5 in terms of need, with an estimated shortage of 10,000 registered nurses by 2026. They both noted that this isn’t a problem that cropped up overnight or even just during the pandemic — there’s a conversation to be had about nurses being valued as much as they should be, Joseph said — but one that needs immediate addressing.

“We’re in competition with other places that also need nurses,” Almeida said. “We understand that the $14,000 definitely helps us bring people in the door for that purpose at the mental health hospitals. And then it’s our job to go ahead and to and to create the environment and that’s what we continue to work on to make sure we have an environment where we want folks to stay.”

While the signing bonus for mental health nurses is the most eye-catching, it’s not the only offer on the table for a department facing stiff competition for new hires. Dining services, youth correction officers, cleaning and maintenance workers and health care technicians, and client aides are seeing $3,250 hiring bonuses, according to department job postings.

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