Tuesday, July 24, 2001
By MARY JO LAYTON
Staff Writer, The Record
More than 400 veteran home health aides will no longer be licensed by New Jersey after background checks revealed criminal pasts and other problems.
Nearly a year after the state required all home care workers to undergo the scrutiny, more than half of the targeted aides -- 16,000 of 29,000 workers -- have passed state police and FBI fingerprint checks, said Mark S. Herr, director of the state Division of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the licensing.
However, 421 aides -- some of whom had worked for years -- were told they could no longer work alone in the homes of patients, most because they had committed crimes. Others had lied on their certification renewal forms. Of the total, 33 are appealing the revocation of their licenses.
"We have removed 421 people who would have otherwise been a potential threat to the public," Herr said Monday.
He said the statistics show that caregivers with criminal backgrounds have been a small percentage of the workforce.
"While this is a real problem, it is not a widespread problem."
However, many agency owners, frustrated by a growing labor shortage, envision a scramble for aides if even a small percentage of the remaining 13,000 aides are not recertified by the Nov. 30 deadline. No one wants to hire aides with a criminal background, they say, but the added scrutiny could further shrink the workforce of qualified aides.
"This is a potential crisis," said Carol J. Kientz, executive director of the Home Health Assembly of New Jersey. "We're already down 10,000 aides from five years ago.
"Many agencies have waiting lists. The problem is only getting worse," she said.
The process -- getting fingerprinted at police stations, completing paperwork, awaiting police and FBI analysis -- can take two to three months.
In letters to agencies sent out in recent weeks, the state warned that many aides were not answering the crime question, which can delay the renewal process or result in automatic disqualification if an aide fails repeatedly to answer the question.
And many agency owners feared the easy work was done. The 13,000 aides who still need screening include some who may be reluctant to expose their criminal background.
In fact, some aides are not answering the crime question on their applications, state and agency officials say. Some fear background checks will reveal their crimes. Others, however, may be unsure if any violation -- such as a parking ticket -- would count as a prohibited offense.
The criminal background checks were started after then-Gov. Christie Whitman signed a law in May 2000 requiring that all home-care workers undergo the scrutiny. The legislation closed a legal loophole that required only newly certified aides to undergo checks.
Whitman signed the law after The Record revealed that the bulk of the workforce went unchecked. As a result, New Jersey had licensed dozens of criminals convicted of theft, drug abuse, and neglect to care for countless sick and elderly patients alone in their homes. One Hackensack aide had been convicted 11 times of drug and theft charges, yet remained on the job.
At the Loving Hands Agency in Paramus, Donna Krociata, personnel compliance coordinator, welcomes the scrutiny but shares Kientz's concern. Most of the 300 aides who work out of the Paramus office and two other locations have passed their background checks, she said.
One aide, Mary Stein, a Garfield resident who has worked for the agency since 1996, filled out her lengthy renewal application last week.
The process is a slight "hassle" Stein said, but one she considers worthwhile. Getting to a police station for fingerprinting can be difficult when an aide has no transportation and must work during the limited hours the prints are taken, she said.
"This puts everyone on the same page," she said. "Now families will know that everyone was checked."
Krociata said most of her aides, like Stein, are reliable. But she said she wonders that the few caregivers who repeatedly fail to comply may have something to hide.
"Definitely I think some are dragging their feet because of their background," she said. "I think we should have been doing this all along."
The agency, like many companies nationally, is struggling to fill jobs in an industry that has a 70 percent annual turnover rate. Physically demanding, and low paying -- aides make about $8.50 an hour and few enjoy health benefits -- the job offers little chance for advancement.
Yet shorter hospital stays and a growing senior population are fueling the demand for more aides, especially in New Jersey where one in eight residents is 65 or older.
More than 233,000 state residents are in need of home health care, a population that is expected to grow by as much as 40 percent by 2025.
"People are using more homecare; it's cheaper than a nursing home," said Krociata. "Yet we're all struggling to find aides."
"We've been putting ads in the paper, we're doing recruiting, offering free courses. I have to tell people it may take a little time to provide an aide," she said.
At Visiting Health Services of New Jersey Inc. in Totowa, nearly all of the 70 home health aides have passed their criminal background checks said Maryanne Voag, director of human resources.
"Ours have been taking three months, give or take, to get their background checks processed. We still have a few aides we are persistently harassing," she said.
According to Herr, the state is processing 1,500 renewals each week. There are 35,000 certified aides in all, he said. However, 6,000 of those were hired after the law went into effect. Therefore, they have already been screened.
The state was originally supposed to complete screenings of the 29,000 existing aides by March 31, but the deadline was extended.
"You have to keep in mind when the new statute went into effect it meant our background checking unit was going to handle nine times the number of people they had to handle previously," Herr said.
"Their workload on this went up tremendously," he said.
Aides have a right both to appeal the revocation of their license and to subsequently seek reinstatement, if they can demonstrate to the state "clear and convincing evidence' of rehabilitation. The board will consider the age of the person at time of offense, nature of the crime, and whether it was isolated or repeated.
Herr said he believes the state will complete all applications by the November deadline. However, he warned that an estimated 3,000 people will not seek renewal because of turnover and other reasons.
"We can't handle losing 1,000 aides, let alone 3,000," said Kientz.
For some agencies, the background checks haven't had much impact.
Eleanor Baker, owner of Mary Baker's Health Care Services in Clifton, said she has always screened aides. She has paid the State Police $15 to determine if a prospective aide committed a crime in New Jersey.
Yet, by undergoing FBI checks, now she can be assured that aides have not committed crimes in other states.
"They've always known up front what the game plan is," said Baker. "I don't like surprises."
Staff Writer Mary Jo Layton's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org