By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
The healthcare industry has struggled for decades with a staffing shortage. The pandemic only worsened the problem, with staff absences due to COVID-19, staff burnout and subsequent quitting, excessive man-hour demands on existing staff and massive changes in protocol and PPE use.
While many industries have emerged from most of the effects of COVID-19, the pandemic’s impact on healthcare staffing continues.
Here’s how a few area providers are coping.
Upstate Medical University
“Like many hospitals nationwide, Upstate is facing a shortage of nurses and other health care positions,” said Darryl Geddes, a spokesperson for Upstate Medical University. “Staffing these positions remains our biggest challenge. Our people are our most valuable resource and they are what makes the hospital run. Without them, we cannot meet the needs of the region. As an academic medical center, Upstate offers many significant specialty services, which are always in demand.”
To address these challenges, Upstate offers premium overtime, increased per diem rates, pay bumps for most RNs and LPNs and a greater emphasis on recruiting. The organization’s strategies include virtual and in-person events, multimedia advertising and social media campaigns.
Upstate continues working with New York state on ways to improve the pay scales for many key roles across the organization.
While difficult, Upstate has also been working on maintaining staffing ratios and workloads and relying on temporary and travel workers only when necessary.
“Our staff members have gone above and beyond since the COVID pandemic began here in New York in March 2020,” Geddes said. “We’re grateful for their service and looking for others to join our exceptional team.”
The focus is on what staff need, from pay rates to benefits packages to educational opportunities.
“We’re an organization that is continuously learning what our employees need through surveys, meetings and other communication,” said Colleen Engler, chief human resources officer. “We work on internal engagement and retention.”
She believes that trying to meet employees’ needs — beginning before onboarding — promotes better staffing through hiring more and retaining more.
Some of the innovative ideas include providing transportation to workers who need a ride. Removing that as a barrier has brought and kept employees with Loretto who may have otherwise missed work because of a lack of transportation.
Engler believes that what employees want most of all is to feel “valued, respected and recognized,” she said.
That typifies the empathetic, caring employees that a healthcare provider hopes to attract.
A few means of extending recognition to employees includes internal promotions like food truck days and team-building activities. Events such as a trip to the zoo also help build camaraderie.
“We listen to what’s important, try to be flexible with scheduling and look at competitive pay rates,” Engler said.
For some employees, this is their first job. Loretto employs personal employee coaches to help them navigate their work duties and personal issues like childcare. The coaches are part of the recruitment process and support employees through orientation to identify areas where Loretto can support employees.
“The whole organization is very collaborative, down to frontline employees,” Engler said. “We all want great people to come.”
Beyond the typical use of job boards, social media and internet radio to advertise openings, partnering with local high schools has helped Oswego Health bring in more applicants. The organization also participates in career fairs, holds small group classroom discussions about healthcare and operates an early college program in high schools.
Alissa Viscome, employee experience manager, said that this allows students to nearly complete an associate degree by the time they graduate from high school.
Although teens often want to move on to a bigger, better town, “if we can create opportunities for kids to graduate, stay here and contribute to the community, they already have support here,” Viscome said. “They give back to a place they’ve grown up in.”
Programs such as tuition reimbursement can help new employees work their way up the ladder. Transportation for eligible employees can make getting to work easier. Little perks like a hot cocoa bar, coffee bar and contests with gift card prizes helps improve the employee experience.
“We’re committed to work-life balance, and taking care of themselves,” Viscome said. “We hire good staff, train them well and treat them well and they’re an employee pipeline.”
Their word-of-mouth advertising helps draw more applicants to Oswego Health. The organization also uses two full-time physician recruiters for those roles, in addition to the recruiting provided by directors and senior leadership.
“We have great retention with our staff,” Viscome said. “We have such longevity. These days, it’s strange to have healthcare workers staying 10, 25, even 40 or 45 years. People here don’t want to retire and they love what they do. The team and the patients are why they stay.”