Advocates warn lawmakers of staffing crises across multiple sectors

Advocates say staff shortages will grow worse unless the state steps in

By: - March 24, 2022 7:18 am

(Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Advocates urged members of the Assembly Budget Committee to devote resources to address staff shortages across multiple sectors Wednesday during a second round of budget hearings.

The warnings of a winnowed workforce extended to schools, child care centers, and health care facilities, and in each case, advocates said the pandemic exacerbated long-standing staffing problems.

“For the past two years, we’ve had to close classrooms for days, weeks, and months at a time because we did not have enough teachers to staff the room,” said Jill Cimafonte, director of early childhood education at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield.

The temple has more than 140 students between three months and 5 years old enrolled in its early education program, which has a lengthy waitlist but has had to forgo expansion because it can’t afford to hire additional staff, Cimafonte said.

She urged the committee to adopt incentives and programs that would bring compensation for preschool teachers and other early childhood educators into line with pay received by elementary and secondary school teachers.

“Our head teachers earn at most $40,000 for the school year. Many of these educators have master’s degrees and have been teaching over 15 years in early childhood,” Cimafonte said, adding, “Even with the annual tuition costs approximately being $20,000 per child, we are still not able to pay our teachers a competitive wage and one that they deserve.”

Wednesday’s hearings were intended to allow for public input on Gov. Phil Murphy’s $49 billion spending proposal. The panel and its Senate counterpart will have to approve a budget plan before it gets to full votes before either chamber. To avoid a state shutdown, lawmakers must pass a budget for Murphy to sign before July 1.

The state’s K-12 schools face a similar staffing crisis. Sean Spiller, president of the New Jersey Education Association, warned New Jersey’s public schools continue to face a teacher shortage that has become worse after two years of COVID-19.

“It’s not just all about people retiring. People aren’t staying in,” Spiller said.

The extent of the shortage is unclear. Gov. Phil Murphy in January signed a bill requiring the state to gather data about its teacher workforce, but that bill won’t go into effect until July, and a full view of school staffing likely won’t be available for months longer.

The NJEA head said the state could adjust teacher GPA requirements — New Jersey currently requires would-be educators have a bachelor’s degree and graduate with a GPA of 3.0 or more, with some exceptions — offer emergency certifications, or establish a loan forgiveness program using federal aid.

“This is the time where we say we need to implement these things soon because the crisis is not coming. It’s here,” he said.

Health care officials raised similar worries over hospital staffing, urging lawmakers to invest in programs to expand and retain New Jersey’s pool of health care providers while urging against cuts that could exacerbate the crisis.

Jennifer Mancuso, executive director of the Fair Share Hospitals Collaborative, urged lawmakers to forgo a $10 million cut proposed by Murphy to the state’s charity care program, which reimburses health care facilities for services rendered to uninsured residents.

She warned utilization of the program had risen by almost $100 million over the last three years, cautioning that number could rise further once the federal public health emergency expires and Medicaid eligibility re-evaluations resume.

“We’re paying very high premiums to meet staffing needs and are paying unsustainable rates to attract and retain workers, especially those from nursing agencies,” she said. “It’s not an appropriate time to cut hospital program funding.”


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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.