As nonprofit providers struggled to retain staff despite low wages and state coffers looked increasingly flush, a network of service providers and a legislative ally pressed Tuesday for a state commitment to increase support for Connecticut’s vulnerable residents.  

During a remote press conference, members of the CT Community Nonprofit Alliance told reporters that nonprofit providers serving a range of disadvantaged populations were facing both unprecedented demand and soaring vacancies as employees increasingly depart for better-paying and lower-stress positions in other sectors. 

“Our turnover has never been so high and the number of applicants so low when they see what we can pay for these high-stress jobs,” said Diane Manning, president of behavioral health provider United Services.

In a survey of 70 Connecticut providers released Tuesday by the alliance, nonprofits reported that an average of 18% of their positions were vacant while 91% reported difficulties recruiting new employees. Meanwhile, providers reported a 68% increase in demand for services. 

Gian Carl Casa, head of the alliance, said providers were in crisis even as the state enjoyed a swell of tax revenues. The budgetary rainy day fund was swollen to its statutory, $3.1 billion limit and the state expects to spend $969 million in surplus funds on paying down unfunded pension liabilities. 

“We’re starting to hear talk of tax cuts and rebates while people in Connecticut who depend on nonprofit services need help and they need it now,” Casa said. 

Much of the social work once done by state employees has shifted over time to the nonprofit sector, which the state funds them at more than $1.4 billion a year. However, state funding has not kept pace with inflation. 

Although last year’s biennium budget included around $80 million in additional support for nonprofit health and human service providers, some new funding was tied to federal COVID funds. Meanwhile, some providers have complained the state budget office has been slow to release the increased funds. 

During Tuesday’s press conference, Sen. Cathy Osten, a Sprague Democrat who is co-chair of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee, called last year’s boost a good step, which amounted to about a 4% increase in funding. But Osten said she wanted to write a further increase of between 4% and 6% into state law. Casa, meanwhile, said his alliance would seek an increase of around 8%.

Given the state’s current surpluses, Osten said policymakers have been perhaps too frugal with their support of the social safety net. 

“We have to start funding the services at a level that allows them to more than exist, but to treat their clients with the respect that we expect them to,” Osten said. 

Providers struggling with retaining staff ranged from programs for people with developmental disabilities, substance abuse issues, and those seeking mental health treatment. Manning, whose United Services focuses on mental health, said more people are arriving in crisis because they have difficulty finding outpatient treatment. 

“Frankly we don’t have a whole lot of options to be able to work with people and they cycle back and forth through the hospital systems, through the emergency departments, they have interactions with the police,” Manning said. “As long as we can’t provide the community support that people need, those other systems will continue to be strained.”

Staff retention has also become critical at Community Solutions, a Bloomfield-based nonprofit assisting children in the foster care system and people transitioning from a term of incarceration. Fernando Muniz, the provider’s CEO, said his front line staff is paid around $15.50 per hour. Some of those staff members are tasked with assisting clients with finding jobs after returning home from a prison sentence. 

“We’re often in a position where we’re getting our clients jobs that pay more than what our staff are making,” Muniz said. “Connecticut’s economy is growing for the first time in decades and our state budget is healthy. The rainy day fund is full and if this is not the rainy day we’ve been saving for, I don’t know what is.”