Jenn Heroux-Bachand, the crisis bed manager at Northeast Kingdom Human Services, grew up helping out on her grandparents’ dairy farm. She knows what it means to work hard. As a kid, she got up to milk the cows at 5 a.m. and didn’t go to bed until the animals were fed.

“I have a ‘Don’t go to sleep until the work is done’ kind of attitude,” she explained in a phone interview.

Still, she’s struggling with her current workload.

In addition to managing her two-bed hospital diversion facility in St. Johnsbury, Heroux-Bachand also oversees a separate public inebriation bed, providing a safe place for people who have been taken into police custody while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. She also coordinates care for a client with severe mental illness who is homeless — and, because of staffing shortages, she pitches in to help her staff provide 24-hour coverage for that individual. On top of it all, she’s been one of the few staff available to pick up emergency service shifts at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital, assessing the mental health needs of patients who arrive at the emergency department or who need assistance in the community.

During a recent two-week stretch, out of necessity, Heroux-Bachand logged a total of 225 hours.

Not surprisingly, she is constantly multitasking. While describing her job over the phone at 8:30 a.m. — sounding tired but determined — she was also checking her email, taking out the trash and preparing her lunch; next, she had a 9 a.m. Zoom meeting.

In the rare moments when she’s not working, she’s with her four teenage children, who range in age from 13 to 18. “I have a really supportive family, and they understand the work that I do is for a good purpose,” she said. “I think, by doing the work and telling the kiddos about it, it makes them better people. You know, like, ‘Hey, this is what the world’s like, and this is what we can do to help.’”

Right now, Heroux-Bachand and dedicated mental health professionals like her around the state need a lot of help.

How Can You Help?
Apply for a job: If you’re looking for meaningful work that matters, check out these job postings and share them with family and friends.
Contact your state legislators and ask them to support a Medicaid rate increase so staff are paid at market rate and all receive livable wages.
Donate to, or volunteer at, your local agency that provides mental health and/or developmental disability and substance use supports and services. Find a list on the Vermont Care Partners website.
Support your neighbors, friends and family when they are in need.
Her employer, Northeast Kingdom Human Services, is one of the state’s 18 community-based nonprofit agencies that provide mental health, substance use and disability support services. Other entities in this network include the Howard Center, Upper Valley Services, Northeastern Family Institute and Lamoille County Mental Health Services, among others. These agencies — the places Vermonters turn to for support when they need it, and especially when they’re in crisis — are facing a serious crisis themselves.

Dependent on Medicaid rates and the state budget to set wages, these agencies have been chronically underfunded. They’ve been struggling to recruit and retain staff for the last two decades, but things have worsened since March 2020. As the pandemic has precipitated a spike in demand for their services, they have been hemorrhaging employees. In February 2021, there were 790 unfilled positions; by September, there were nearly 1,000, a staggering 20 percent of the workforce. Some agencies have vacancy rates as high as 60 percent.

The exodus is happening all over the state in multiple professions, including direct support professionals, therapists, social workers, case managers, respite workers and addiction counselors. One thing these departing workers have in common: They cite low pay as one of the biggest reasons for leaving, said Simone Rueschemeyer, co-director of Vermont Care Partners, which supports 16 of the agencies.

“We are at a breaking point,” warned Rueschemeyer. “This is a moral call to action. The health and safety of our staff, and those we support, is at significant risk.”