Panelists during Forum session at Women of Distinction conference in May 2022
From left: Amy Schectman, Brenda Connelly, Demetress Harrell and Jim White participating in a panel discussion about workforce at the 2022 Women of Distinction Forum. Panelists not pictured: Steven Chies and Alison Kippen. Credit: Tori Soper

Combining pay increases with innovative benefits and a culture that rewards loyalty is a key way to improve long-term care hiring and retention, six industry leaders said last week.

What doesn’t work is a cookie-cutter approach that only throws money at would-be workers, speakers at the McKnight’s Women of Distinction Forum on Friday morning agreed.

“I will tell you, having gone through these crises over my entire career, there is not enough money to be spent to solve the problem short-term or long-term,” said Steven Chies, president of North Cities Health Care and a 40-year long-term care veteran. “You’ve got to have the data and the information before you can decide what the solution is. If you think in medical terms, you diagnose and then you prescribe.”

Chies’ comments came during “Work It: Smart ways to address the caregiver shortage,” an hour-long educational panel. McKnight’s Home Care Editor Liza Berger moderated the discussion. 

Other panelists included Brenda Connelly, RN, chief operating officer of The Springs Living; Demetress Harrell, CEO of Hospice in the Pines; Alison Kippen, vice president of human resources for Senior Lifestyle; Amy Schectman, president and CEO of 2Life Communities; and Jim White, partner and chief culture officer at Ignite Medical Resorts. They shared their biggest challenges, innovations that have worked and advice on improving recruiting and retention in other communities.

Although much of the focus has been on staff losses among frontline caregivers, concerns about shortages in management, dining and housekeeping are increasing in healthcare and long-term care settings.

“There were folks within the salaried level that were stepping in and providing so much and that strain and struggle really caused them to question: Is the reason I got into this still the same reason?” Connelly recounted. “But it’s also been a tremendous opportunity on the salaried front in particular, to be able to recruit and reach folks from other industries because now, they’re sitting there questioning: Does my job fulfill me?”

Patching new holes

White said that healthcare can be sold as a steady profession with a growth curve ahead, whereas other industries may be retracting. But, he too, has seen challenges grow beyond nursing.

“The therapy discipline has become extremely challenging as well, to where therapists now, because of the increase in wages around, they see that they can leave and make more money,” he said. “Sometimes you can compete and sometimes you can’t. …We’ve actually experienced a big therapy hole this year.”

Ignite Medical Reports grew to 14 locations in the central U.S. during the pandemic. White said that recruitment and retention were aided by the company’s “Superheroes in Scrubs” program, which rewards dependable employees with bonuses for attendance, extra paid time off and gift cards.

“While we may not be able to compete with some of those exorbitant sign-on bonuses or those wages that get paid to travelers or hospitals … I can be competitive enough and have other things behind it that will seem appealing,” White added.

Schechtman’s company doesn’t hire caregiving staff, but she has faced plenty of challenges filling maintenance and dining positions. Despite boosting hourly minimum wages to $19.25 and salaried employees to $40,000 annually, well-trained maintenance workers still were recruited away to union jobs paying more than twice the rate.

Although 2Life has adopted sliding scale insurance premiums and started contributing to 401(k)s even for low-earning workers who don’t pay in themselves, Schechtman said that higher-level solutions are necessary.

“If you’re looking at it from a very micro level, each of us can’t solve it with money,” she said. “If you’re looking at a societal level, there’s plenty of money out there; for example: if we had Medicare for all; if we had a national minimum wage of $25 an hour. …If we made affordable housing an entitlement as opposed to only nursing homes being an entitlement, we could shift so much.”

Hiring, retention perks working for them

Other recent benefits and intangibles added by the panelists’ organizations:

  • Pausing senior-level raises to give lower-earning employees higher increases in the face of inflation.
  • Increasing paid vacation to three weeks for all staff members.
  • Adding separate bereavement leave.
  • New counseling and grief support services.
  • Instant access to paychecks.
  • Initiation of flexible spending accounts to improve childcare affordability.
  • Faster job offers after application and interview.

Harrell added that the hiring conversation needs to start before the individual worker applies. Like Kippen, she said the staffing crisis started before COVID-19, although it has been exacerbated by the pandemic. The problems are worse in areas with suppressed wages.

“Those shortages took nurses out of our communities, and they’re now getting paid at a higher rate of pay to travel,” said Harrell, who noted that of nurses graduating from a community college near her, only 3% went to work locally. “They know that they are going to have that metropolitan dollar versus the rural rate. We might have the resources financially, but we don’t have the person.”

When employers find the person, they need to be “ready set to go” on making an offer, Harrell added. Connelly, whose company joined the social media platform TikTok recently to help build brand excitement and attract applicants, echoed her comment. 

“Digital marketing is where you have to be,” she said. “Anything has to be displayed beautifully and quickly, because you only capture their attention for a short period of time. And then, once they do reach out, you’ve got to be there immediately and ready to attack the interview process.”

Despite the pressure to work fast and with creativity, human resources staff members still must remain supportive of existing employees. Kippen said that leaders must teach compassion as a key strategy and value.

“I think of it as, I’m hiring this person to care for a human being. It’s my job to care for them,” Kippen said. “Providing them with the basic necessities of life, pay and benefits that are competitive within the marketplace for what they’re doing but then … we have to be compassionate as well. Everybody is exhausted, and they’re finding it harder and harder to be super compassionate, and that is a big piece that we have to overcome.”

The 2022 Women of Distinction Awards and Forum were made possible by PointClickCare, Diamond sponsor; OnShift and PharMerica, Silver sponsors; and Reliant Rehabilitation, Bronze sponsor. Table sponsors included Dreamscape, Gojo/Purell and Sound Physicians.