Worker shortage hitting nursing homes hard

BOSTON — It’s a well-known fact that the healthcare industry has been shedding jobs for many months. But a new report from the American Health Care Association highlights where most of those job losses have been — and the answer is nursing homes.

Between February 2020 and January 2022, The Bureau of Labor and Statistics found nursing homes suffered a 15 percent decline in employment — while hospitals fell 2 percent.

That would be no surprise to Mary Moscato, president of Hebrew SeniorLife Healthcare Services and Hebrew Rehabilitation Center.

“We just don’t have enough front line staff,” she said. “Before the pandemic, we had a vacancy rate of maybe three to five percent — maybe 30 to 50 front-line positions. Today, we’re up to seven to nine percent.”

Moscato said there are three main reasons the pandemic affected nursing home employment.

First, she said a significant number of workers got COVID-19.

“They needed to take time off, they needed to recover, they needed to get healthy again,” she said.

Second, staffers suddenly had family responsibilities they weren’t counting on, Moscato said —such as having to stay home to watch children who would otherwise have been in school.

And third, some nursing home workers had simply had enough — enough sickness, death and loss.

“Through the pandemic, with the stress levels, they decided to retire,” Moscato said. “The other factor is, it’s taking two to three times as long to recruit and orient a staff member.”

Before the pandemic, Hebrew SeniorLife’s open positions were usually filled in about two to three months, Moscato said. “Now the opening takes four to six months.”

And as the company’s job board makes painfully clear — many openings are going unfilled — from scientists to nurses, to CNAs to culinary specialists.

While it might seem nursing homes are at least benefitting from a smaller payroll — that is not necessarily the case.

“We also had to complement the front-line with increased overtime and and also bring in what we refer to in the healthcare industry as ‘contract agency nursing staff.’

They are also called ‘travel nurses’ — and can sometimes make double the hourly wage of a staff nurse.

Doris Bardwell’s 95-year-old mother has been in a western Massachusetts nursing home for six years. The last two have been trying.

“There were staff that were there through the initial outbreak of COVID — and they were our lifeline,” she said. “Many of those staff have resigned, moved on.”

The temporary staffers brought in are trying to do a good job, Bardwell said, but the change has been traumatic for some residents, including her mother.

“She has a lot of pride and she doesn’t ask, sometimes, for the help that she really needs,” Bardwell said. “But the caretakers that know her — they have recognized a change in her status and they know what she needs additionally in care.”

And Bardwell worries about the remaining long-term staff members.

“The seasoned staff remaining there because they are so dedicated to the residents, we worry every day that they’ll be the next to resign.” she said. “The workload is not sustainable and they’ll burn out.”

Moscato doesn’t expect the worker shortage to turn around quickly — she said it could take 18 or more months. She hopes healthcare workers looking for a place to provide compassionate care will think about applying to a nursing home.

“Working with seniors... and sharing their wisdom, their history, their background and how they raised families and the goodness that they have brought is so rewarding.”

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