Nearly three years after COVID-19 began decimating staffing levels at long-term care facilities nationwide, the health care sector hardest hit by the pandemic is beginning to see employment numbers rise.
Leaders at local senior facilities say they have bolstered their staffs over the last year but still must rely on nursing agencies to fill many positions — an expensive solution.
“I’d say the biggest challenge during the pandemic was with recruiting and retaining nursing assistants and medical technicians,” said Phil Golden, executive director and principal at Springwell in Baltimore’s Mount Washington neighborhood. “The team here did band together and we made it through, but it was definitely a challenge.”
Golden said Springwell, which offers independent living, assisted living and memory care, has had to rely on nursing agencies to keep the facility staffed, something it hadn’t done in the five years before the pandemic began in 2020.
“Thank goodness they were there,” he said, adding that agency help costs more than staff employees.
With about 300 people working on a full-time, part-time and as-needed basis, Springwell averaged about 100 agency shifts per month from March to July this year, Golden said, adding that the facility was down to 35 agency shifts in October.
“We have definitely had to raise salaries,” Golden continued, saying that, before 2020, annual staff raises averaged 2.5% to 3% but that, since the pandemic began, raises have been in the 4% to 6% range. Springwell also offers a benefits package.
Today, Springwell as a whole is 92% to 93% staffed, with the rate a bit lower in assisted living and slightly higher in memory care, Golden said.
“It’s not all the way back to pre-pandemic, but I think the higher wages are here to stay and labor markets are more competitive,” he said.
Aileen McShea Tinney, president and CEO of Keswick in Baltimore, said the staffing situation at the skilled nursing facility had improved in the last few months.
Staffing at Keswick, whose patients receive short-term and long-term care on its Roland Park campus, has increased by almost 10% since October 2021, though Keswick still has a 10% vacancy for all nursing positions, Tinney said.
As of October, Keswick had 292 employees, up from 268 a year earlier, she said.
Keswick also has had to use agency employees to fill empty registered nurse, licensed practical nurse and geriatric nursing assistant positions, with 11% of Keswick’s total salaries going to agencies that supply nursing help, Tinney said.
Tinney emphasized that Keswick has made progress in hiring geriatric nursing assistants, or GNAs.
“GNAs are the backbone of long-term care — the heart, soul and backbone,” she said, adding that most nursing employees at Keswick are GNAs.
Last year, in an effort to shore up its staff, Keswick raised its minimum wage to $16 per hour, Tinney said, with the GNA starting rate at $18 per hour and the average hourly GNA rate close to $22. Keswick also offers employees a benefits package.
To enhance its overall retention efforts, Keswick is partnering with the Geriatric Workforce Enhancement Program at Johns Hopkins Bayview, which trains GNAs, RNs and LPNs and seeks to develop an integrated geriatric primary care health care workforce.
Retaining GNAs is particularly crucial, Tinney said, explaining that GNAs often “ping-pong” among long-term care facilities. To reduce such bouncing around, she said, Keswick started a culture and retention committee this year that is developing a program to oversee onboarding and to support new GNAs.
Roland Park Place, a long-term care community in Baltimore that offers independent living, assisted living and memory care, also has had to rely on agency staffing since the pandemic began, said Becki Bees, vice president of sales and marketing.
Roland Park Place, with 250 employees, has raised its minimum hourly wage to $15 and proportionally increased compensation for other employees, Bees said, adding that workers also are provided a free lunch, on-site parking and a benefits package.