As the staffing crisis continues to plague the senior living industry, some operators across the U.S. are hitting a snag as they hunt for fresh workers: the cost of living is rising in many cities, and employees’ wages aren’t always keeping pace.
This one-two punch has made it tough for some of those crucially needed staffers to live near where they work. And the need for local workers is great. The country will need 2.5 million long-term services and support workers by 2030 to keep up with the aging population, according to a 2017 survey report by LeadingAge.
One solution that some senior living operators are talking about is offering some kind of onsite housing for employees, much like some travel companies, resorts and hotel chains already do. For example, Pink Jeep Tours, a Sedona, Arizona-based tour company, owns some homes near the Grand Canyon that it rents out to employees on a part- and full-time basis.
Pink Jeep Tours offers the housing primarily because it’s closer to the Grand Canyon, where many of its employees give tours.
“It sounds like a great idea in the senior living industry to set aside units to rent out to workers if you need to attract employees from other areas,” Jacquie Wishnewsky, Pink Jeep Tours’ human resources director, told Senior Housing News. “It, of course, helps if the location is attractive to potential workers.”
The topic was in the air at this year’s Ziegler Annual Senior Living Finance + Strategy Conference, according to Lisa McCracken, Ziegler’s senior vice president of senior living research and development.
“What was discussed at our conference was…a number of the [operators’] staff cannot afford to live within a reasonable proximity to their workplace,” McCracken told SHN. “The idea of housing has come up in individual conversations with provider meetings and presentations we have had.”
Not so easy
Despite the recent allure of using workforce housing to help entice new employees, there is the longstanding question of how that practice could work in the real world.
Senior living operators have pondered how to offer workforce housing since at least the 1990s, according to Dana Wollschlager, principal at Plante Moran Living Forward, the senior living development consulting arm of certified public accounting and business advisory firm Plante Moran.
“This is something we’ve been bantering about, at least the progressive senior living operators have, for years,” Wollschlager told SHN.
But there’s no easy solution to the problem, she added. One snag is, by offering housing, operators become landlords in addition to employers. And with that new relationship comes a host of rules and regulations that govern things like evictions, maintenance and rent.
For example, while an employer might have the power to fire a worker without much notice, they cannot usually evict them so swiftly. That matters especially in cases of fraud or abuse, where an employer might want their former employee off the premises as soon as possible.
“Or conversely, let’s say they don’t pay their rent,” Wollschlager mused. “You can evict them as a tenant, but if they’re still able to do their job, then [firing them is] a whole different animal.”
While offering workforce housing isn’t an unsolvable puzzle, it is very complicated.
“It’s all a function of how your lease agreement and employment agreement with that employee is spelled out,” Wollschlager said. “What it forces us to do is to think through every possible scenario that might come up so you cover yourself from a liability perspective.”
Finding a solution
There are some operators who have made it happen, Wollschlager said—though one she identified, a Midwestern life plan community with staff housing, declined to talk to Senior Housing News for this story.
One possible way to offer workforce housing without breaking ground on a new building could lie in converting existing units that aren’t viable for residents into employee living quarters. There are also a few ways senior living providers can help their workers live closer without actually providing housing, such as offering monetary rent assistance or partnering with multifamily housing operators.
“You [could] partner with a multifamily housing operator that is either just opening or struggling to fill units…and you negotiate some sort of a relationship with them where they become the landlord, and you pay them,” Wollschlager said.
This might also be an argument for senior living or age-restricted communities to open adjacent to multifamily developments or as part of the same campus. That way, employees would at least have housing available to rent nearby, if the price is right or rent discounts can be provided.
Still, the industry will need to get creative if it wants to come up with a scaleable way to help employee live closer to where they work.
“We need to find some models across the country that might be able to be replicated,” Wollschlager said. “If it were this easy, people would already be doing it.”
Written by Tim Regan