Many facilities in the region are struggling to attract new employees
By Todd Etshman
Many areas of American business found out just how hard it is to find and hire enough employees when they tried to reopen and recover from the pandemic.
It’s been particularly difficult for senior care and living facilities, which made front page news with the challenge of protecting residents and staff from airborne virus in close quarters.
The safety concerns of COVID-19 exacerbated the staffing shortage problem, but it began even before the pandemic.
Senior living and care facilities here and across the country faced staffing shortage challenges before COVID-19 arrived in large part because geriatrics and senior care isn’t a field many choose to enter.
The pandemic may or may not be over, but the staffing shortage isn’t likely to be resolved soon even as more people are vaccinated and worker safety isn’t as much of an issue.
Staffing shortage particulars
It doesn’t help that extra unemployment benefits mean lower paid staff such as CNAs might make more money by not working. Senior home administrators hope the labor pool will increase when those benefits end in September.
“We’ll see,” said Robert Bourg, senior vice president of human resources at St. Ann’s. “Our unemployment numbers have skyrocketed in the past 18 months. It’s part of the challenge. You never know what’s coming next.”
To make matters worse, nursing and training programs stopped training and providing the graduates senior care facilities need when they needed them most. For the most part, remote learning isn’t suitable for training nurses and certified nursing assistants to work in a hands-on environment.
As Nancy Smyth, executive director of the Rochester Presbyterian Home, points out, senior care staff didn’t have the option of working remotely during the pandemic or of keeping a six-foot distance from residents.
“We’re already seeing nursing home care facilities close their doors, not because they don’t have the residents, but because they don’t have the staff members,” said St. Ann’s vice president and administrator Susan Murty.
Shortly after I spoke with her, Hill Haven Nursing and Rehabilitation, a Rochester Regional Health run home on Empire Boulevard in Penfield announced it was closing.
“Not to be an alarmist, but this could be the beginning of a public health crisis if we can’t figure this out as a community,” she said.
To help make up for the direct care staff shortage, even senior care home administrators were trained in CNA like duties and pressed into service no matter how high up the organizational ladder they are.
“It’s one thing to think you understand what employees are doing day to day. But, to do it, you really get an appreciation of what the job is all about,” Bourg said.
Obtaining enough certified nursing, assistants is among the biggest staffing challenges because senior care homes tend to hire more of them than other types of employees such as nurses.
Food service, social workers and facilities maintenance workers are also in short supply.
Workers’ industry perception
At the height of the pandemic, senior care employees at St. Ann’s facilities in Rochester and others across the nation became residents’ families and worked hard to meet the emotional and physical needs of their residents in a crisis situation. But, as Bourg explained, for the most part, the public only heard horrible things and the perception of working in senior homes took a huge hit.
“Because of COVID a lot of people aren’t even going to consider a career in senior care. They’re just not going to do it,” he said.
Michael Perrotta, vice president and administrator of Friendly Senior Living, said the challenge for senior care facilities is to overcome the stigma people have of working in the industry.
“Senior care communities, nursing homes and assisted living facilities really got a black eye because of the way the virus spread in a communal living environment,” he said.
Area senior care facilities are however, taking much needed steps to help get enough staff, ease the burden on existing staff and continue to provide the care their residents need.
Paying higher wages
Pay rates are, not surprisingly, one of the biggest incentives to attract and keep staff. It doesn’t help that there are easier jobs in fast food, retail and other places that pay more.
“There is no clear path out of this unless it’s more pay for entry level folks,” said St. Ann’s Murty. She wishes St. Ann’s and the industry could employ more people from the city where poverty is a real problem a living wage could help.
Rochester Presbyterian Home is paying new CNAs a $500 sign-on bonus and rewarding existing CNAs for staying. They instituted hazard pay during the pandemic and other bonuses, too.
In late June, Friendly Senior Living announced it would raise the minimum wage for new and current employees to $15 an hour effective Sept. 5. In late July, St. Ann’s announced it would raise the minimum wage to $15 by the end of the year.
It’s a necessary step but a difficult one to implement since Medicaid and government funding is the biggest source of revenue.
Medicaid in New York State for long-term care has been chronically underfunded for years, said Perrotta. It pays about 70% on the dollar meaning they lose 30% for everyone on Medicaid and the vast majority of residents are on Medicaid.
“Unlike other service businesses like fast food and retail, we can’t just raise our prices to cover the additional expense,” Perrotta lamented. “If the pandemic has shown us anything it’s that we need a really dedicated well-trained workforce and we need financial resources to show this is a viable career path.”
Additional measures taken to attract more employees
Job fairs were held long before the pandemic, but often to fill a specific need for one class of employee. Now they’re being held to fill all types of employees.
A late June Friendly Senior Living job fair netted approximately 15 new employees to the staff of around 300. A fully staffed St. Ann’s has approximately1200 employees. It has roughly a thousand now.
Friendly Senior Living isn’t the only senior living company to offer employees educational incentives but they took it a step further by offering to pay employees while they’re in school and studying, too.
Friendly is also starting their own CNA training class so they don’t always have to rely on other programs to provide the CNAs they need.
Partnering and engaging with local schools and programs is essential to solving staffing needs and encouraging students to consider a career in the senior home industry.
Since new graduates aren’t exactly drawn to a career in geriatrics, Bourg said St. Ann’s has to be creative in educating students to consider opportunities they might not have considered otherwise.
“We have to do things early at the high school level to educate young people about career opportunities and expose them to what we do,” Bourg said.
Partnering with job assistance and placement services such as Rochester Works is also important.
Temporary assistance staff is an avenue of last resort, mainly because they don’t know the residents and their special needs.
Minor incentives like food and individual and group recognition might not seem like much, but it means a lot to staff members.
It takes more than just dollars to create a work environment in which people feel they’re valued, appreciated and part of a great team, Bourg said.
“Call us if you’re interested,” said the Presbyterian Home’s Smyth. “It’s a work of heart. It’s very rewarding work, emotionally rewarding the most. We just don’t have the labor.”