Nursing homes and assisted-living facilities across this area are experiencing critical shortages in staffing. Positions ranging from dietary workers and housekeepers to nurses and nurses aides remain unfilled as workers retire early or opt for less demanding jobs. Their reasons for leaving range from a fear of contracting COVID-19 to the increased demands of parenting to the availability of more lucrative or less stressful jobs.

For Barbara Klick, CEO of the Sholom senior living campuses on Saint Paul’s West End and in Saint Louis Park, the labor shortage is the worst she has seen in her 45 years in health care. At last count, the Sholom East Campus at 740 Kay Ave. had 58 openings—46 in skilled nursing and 12 in assisted living.

 

Sholom Home
Saida Yusuf, a trained medical assistant at the Sholom Home on Saint Paul’s West End, gives resident Ken Zimmerman an elbow bump. The two have become fast friends. Photo by Brad Stauffer

“It’s hard work, emotionally and physically,” Klick said. “Workers are doing a terrific job, but they’re exhausted. We have to take care of our caregivers, too.”

While Sholom and other homes for the elderly have increased the wages they pay their employees, they have been lobbying state lawmakers to help them through the pandemic. Two long-term care trade associations, Leading Age Minnesota and Care Providers Minnesota, have asked the Legislature and Governor Tim Walz to allocate funds from the federal American Rescue Plan to help pay for emergency staffing.

The reasons behind the staff shortages

According to a recent survey by the trade associations of 300 elder care homes in Minnesota, there is an overall staffing shortage of 23,000 positions affecting 70 percent of the nursing homes and 29 percent of the assisted living facilities in the state. Many facilities, especially in rural Minnesota, have had to stop admitting new residents.

With wages as low as $12 to $14 an hour, employees in senior housing have been attracted by higher-paying jobs. It is hard to compete, Klick noted, when fast-food restaurants are offering starting pay of $16 an hour.

Most of the homes experiencing shortages have asked their employees to work longer hours. “We’re relying more on current employees, who get stretched thin,” said Deb Waedt, an administrator for Presbyterian Homes, which operates more than 50 senior housing communities, including Lexington Landing at 900 Old Lexington Ave. and Carondelet Village at 525 S. Fairview Ave.

Waedt blamed much of the worker shortage on the pandemic and the increased demand on employees who have elderly parents in their care or are the parents of young children. So far, Lexington Landing has not had to turn away resident applicants. “We’re blessed at that site,” Waedt said. “It’s in the heart of Saint Paul and on a bus line. And a lot of people walk to work there.”

New incentives for employees in assisted living

Presbyterian Homes has increased employee wages by as much as 10 percent in recent months. It has also offered signing bonuses, academic scholarships and paid training for nurse assistants. Nevertheless, Lexington Landing’s independent living section has had to reduce its dining room hours due to a shortage of dietary workers. Dinner service has been eliminated on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays, and breakfasts are no longer available on weekends.

Episcopal Homes, 1860 University Ave., has offered employees the additional benefits of subsidized transit passes and free on-site day care. New hires now qualify for health insurance immediately, according to Emilee Sames, Episcopal Homes’ human resources director.

Episcopal Homes attracted 40 prospective employees to a recent job fair and hired 14 of them. However, 10 percent of the approximately 600 positions at the senior housing facility remain vacant, according to Sames. She attributed the vacancies to burnout from demanding jobs and the desire for less stressful jobs with more convenient hours.

The Pillars of Highland Park, 1925 Norfolk Ave., has eight open positions in its assisted-living and memory care facilities, including six positions in nursing, according to Erin Hilligan, vice president of operations for Ebenezer Senior Living, which operates the Pillars.

Ebenezer operates 38 assisted living facilities and six nursing homes, Hilligan said, and altogether they have about 800 open positions. The company held a job fair at the Pillars recently that resulted in several new hires, she said. They have found other new employees among the students at Saint Catherine University.

In its marketing messages on social media, Ebenezer emphasizes the rewards of working in a mission-based organization, Hilligan said, along with the family spirit one gets in working with the elderly and the long-term potential of a career in caregiving. She and other senior housing administrators pointed out that the demand for caregivers for the elderly will only increase as the baby boom generation ages.

— Carolyn Walkup

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