The U.S. is experiencing one of its worst labor shortages in decades. It’s likely the reason why your pizza took longer than usual to get delivered or why your flight may have been canceled.

And it’s also the reason why you’re probably going to have a tough time getting a friend or loved one into an assisted living facility or nursing home, and why you may be more concerned about a vulnerable family member currently residing in one.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, some 221,000 people have left the industry. That amounts to a 14% drop in employment, according to a report published by the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, trade organizations that collectively represent some 14,000 nursing homes and assisted living communities across the country.

Among all health-care sectors, nursing homes have lost the most jobs since before the pandemic, according to the report, which is based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

“As many caregivers are getting burned out by the pandemic, workers are leaving the field for jobs in other health-care settings or other industries altogether,” said Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of AHCA/NCAL. Only 1% of nursing homes said they were fully staffed. While nearly 70% said they’re experiencing “high level staffing shortages.”

Nursing-home workers get low wages, while the industry received billions in pandemic aid

But these workers often shoulder heavy workloads, paltry benefits and low wages. The median annual wage for home-health and personal-care aides was just $27,080 in May 2020 or $13.02 per hour, according to the BLS.

Despite the reported staffing shortages by the industry, the average nursing home’s daily direct-care staffing was about 3.6 hours per resident in the first quarter of 2021, broadly unchanged since the same time last year, according to the Long Term Care Community Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group. 

The Center for Medicare Advocacy, a national nonprofit law organization that aims to advance access to comprehensive Medicare coverage and quality healthcare, released a report earlier this year that painted a grim picture of COVID-19 infections and deaths among both staff and patients.

“‘During the coronavirus pandemic, nursing homes have received billions of additional dollars and non-monetary support.’”

— A report by the Center for Medicare Advocacy

“Since the beginning of the pandemic and as of the end of February 2021, nursing facilities have reported that at least 640,271 residents and 552,660 staff members have had confirmed cases of COVID-19 and that at least 130,174 residents and 1,623 staff members have died of the virus,” the report said. “These numbers are likely underreported.”

The organization also pointed to the large influx of public funds sent to these facilities during the peak of the public-health crisis: “During the coronavirus pandemic, nursing homes have received billions of additional dollars and non-monetary support from all levels of government in addition to reimbursement for care through the Medicare and Medicaid programs.”

Case in point: After nearly 30 years as a nursing assistant, 63-year-old Mary McClendon told Barron’s reporter Eleanor Laise that she makes just $13 an hour. “There’s no such thing as a banking account,” said McClendon, who works at a nursing home in Detroit. “We work paycheck to paycheck.”

Staffing shortages have led to nursing homes limiting new admissions

Still, the staffing shortages are, the industry says, having significant ramifications. A majority (58%) of nursing homes are limiting new admissions because they’re understaffed, according to an AHCA/NCAL September survey of more than 1,000 assisted living and nursing home providers.

Staffing shortages are less pronounced in assisted-living communities. Some 4% said they’re fully staffed and some 40% said they’re having “high level staffing shortages.”

Nevertheless, some 78% of nursing homes and 61% of assisted living communities are concerned workforce challenges might force them to close.

Across all industries in the U.S., quit rates are the highest they’re been in decades. In September, some 4.4 million people quit their jobs, according to new data published Friday. By contrast, just half as many had quit during the early stages of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, there are some 10.4 million job openings and 7.4 million people who are unemployed.

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