Turnover, competition for workers and dissatisfaction push vacancies in northern healthcare sector to new heights

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Ryan FinnertyTurnover, competition for workers and dissatisfaction push vacancies in northern healthcare sector to new heights

The number of vacancies in upstate New York's healthcare systems has doubled in two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Photo : <a href=userCreative Commons, some rights reserved” class=”lazy” data-original=”https://www.northcountrypublicradio.org/news/images/I_Love_NY_checkup.jpg” src=”https://www.northcountrypublicradio.org/news /images/loading/I_Love_NY_checkup.jpg” data-loading=”https://www.northcountrypublicradio.org/news/images/loading/I_Love_NY_checkup.jpg”/>

Compensation has been at the center of the national debate over the shortage of health care workers; especially the exorbitant earning potential for nurses and other skilled technicians willing to travel across the country.

Contracts for so-called travel nurses have been seen for amounts as high as $10,000 per week.

CVPH workers say compensation is certainly a factor in their staffing issues, but more than lack of pay, they say they feel disrespected by hospital management.

“Everyone is mentally, physically and emotionally at rock bottom,” said Bobbi-Jo Otis, who worked as a surgical and oncology nurse at CVPH for nearly 20 years.

Otis said in an interview that chronic understaffing has left nurses caring for too many patients, causing care to suffer. It hits her hard as a lifelong Plattsburgh resident.

“I’m ashamed sometimes,” she admits, recounting the problems her neighbors receiving treatment in the hospital have brought to her attention.

Otis, whose family has deep ties to the community, revealed a recent personal decision during the interview.

“After 19 years, I decided to go into travel nursing because I have to look at what’s best for me and my family right now,” she revealed. “I can travel nurse and pay off my mortgage.”

The toll of the past two years has left Otis uncertain about her future in the healthcare industry after her scheduled stint on a travel contract, called a “trip” by nurses.

“I shared with my family when I got back that I’m not sure about staying in health care,” Otis said.

While it’s easy to dismiss this kind of angst as just a side effect of the pandemic tumult, Otis and Osbourne say current labor issues aren’t just a COVID-19 stressor.

They blame much of CVPH’s turnover on a workforce restructuring initiative hospital management deployed before the pandemic to reduce costs and make the establishment profitable.

Hospital president Michelle LeBeau, herself a trained nurse, told NCPR that the goal was actually to reduce the number of patients each nurse cares for, largely by relying on more auxiliary nurses.

This plan was developed with pre-pandemic conditions in mind, but proved problematic. LeBeau sticks to the original intent, but acknowledges that things didn’t work out as planned.

It is direct on the prognosis to rectify the current tightening of personnel.

“There’s no short-term solution to this,” she said in an interview. “That’s going to be the challenge for us.”

Asked about the alleged decline in the quality of care reported by Otis, LeBeau was quick to praise CVPH staff, saying “the quality of care the staff provide is all they can bring to the table.” .

She said the community feedback received by the hospital was more positive than negative, but acknowledged that staff have fewer resources than many would like.

In the short term, LeBeau said management is working with staff to make the hospital a more attractive place to work, trying to develop more flexible schedules, hours and holidays.

As CVPH tries to pull itself out of a staffing shortfall, a hospital across the North Country is taking preventative action in hopes of preventing a similar situation.

In 2021, Samaritan Medical Center in Watertown committed $8 million to provide a 14% salary increase for staff. The hospital also began offering signing bonuses for jobs it didn’t have before.

“It became clear that we weren’t competitive with nurse salaries in our area,” Samaritan’s director of communications said. Leslie DiStefano.

The need for higher wages was discovered during what DiStefano described as a routine annual survey of the regional market to gauge the competitiveness of Samaritan’s pay levels. Further analysis indicated that compensation across a range of specialties, not just nursing, had not kept pace with other health systems in the region.

DiStefano said in an interview that Samaritan still has a high number of vacancies, but there are signs the plan is having the intended effect.

“We’ve seen the benefits of that,” she noted. “We have seen a decrease in our open positions, although we still have a lot. I looked this morning and we have 426 job postings across the system.

Hospital employees and administrators are quick to say their industry had a shortage of skilled labor in upstate New York long before the pandemic. However, the problem is now more acute than ever.

The Iroquois Health Association says the average vacancy rate in upstate hospitals is now double what it was before the pandemic.

This problem extends far beyond New York State, according to Alan Morgan, CEO of the National Rural Health Association.

“Rural health is really the study of labor shortages,” notes Morgan.

He said the workforce issues plaguing small town medical systems are structural and predate the pandemic. The problem often starts with how skilled health workers are recruited and trained.

“Often we take students who do well on tests, usually urban kids from high-income families, we train them in urban areas, and then we’re stunned that they don’t want to work in a rural community,” says Morgan..

As in most industries, the wage gap between rural and urban employers is also a factor.

Morgan said a recent survey of his NRHA members indicated better pay was the top reason for leaving a job in recent months.

“When you’re talking about a small town and lower wages in these small rural communities, competition with urban locations has always been problematic,” he noted.

This dynamic has been exacerbated by the feverish competition for workers and the deep pockets that large urban employers can draw from.

“Now with the pandemic, there is literally a nationwide recruiting effort and unfortunately rural people often lose in these battles,” Morgan said.

With hospital systems across the country vying for the same limited pool of skilled workers, no one in the industry seems to think the labor shortage will ease anytime soon.

Hospital administrators and advocates like Morgan say the key will be recruiting more young people from rural communities and providing affordable pathways to education.

Now, state governments are starting to step in to try to stabilize the workforce in their regions.

Vermont Governor Phil Scott recently announced plans to spend more than $30 million to retain and recruit healthcare workers.

In Albany, New York Governor Kathy Hochul outlined a plan in her State of the State Address spend 10 billion dollars on salary increases and the granting of bonuses to medical personnel. His plan would also provide funds to cover education costs and provide loan forgiveness in exchange for working in underserved areas.

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