Senior Living Providers Adjust Operations, Raise Pay to Meet Covid-19 Staffing Challenges

Of all the challenges senior living providers face during Covid-19, maintaining frontline staffing levels is one of the hardest and most expensive to address.

The issue has many facets. The first is that, in looking after an at-risk population of older adults, senior living caregivers are also at an elevated risk for contracting Covid-19. In response, many providers have adopted a mandatory sick leave policy for workers who have any flu-like symptoms, Covid-19 or not, leaving them with potentially diminished workforces.

Meanwhile, schools and daycares across the U.S. have shuttered to prevent the spread of the disease. With their children at home, some senior living caregivers are faced with a difficult choice between cutting their hours to watch them or leaving them unsupervised during the work day.

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On this issue of supporting workers’ childcare needs, the industry is breathing a little easier today, in light of new clarification from the Department of Labor that senior living providers will be considered “health care providers” under the recently passed Families First Coronavirus Response Act. This means that operators will be exempt from requirements that certain companies with fewer than 500 workers must provide up to 12 days of paid leave for employees who needed to care for children due to school closures, if certain criteria were met.

This DOL exemption means that senior living providers will not face expenses that could have become unsustainable at a time when maintaining their workforce is also a key part of combating the Covid-19 outbreak. However, the problem of child care still remains.

“We also recognize the ongoing childcare issue for our workers and are collaborating with our state partners to urge state and local governments and municipalities to provide this needed service for senior living workers who want to continue caring for frail seniors and have peace of mind that their children are safe,” Argentum President & CEO James Balda stated.

While support from the government would no doubt be welcome, senior living providers are implementing a variety of new practices to support staff with child care needs, in addition to taking other steps to maintain their workforces.

School’s out

For Dominion Senior Living, pandemic-induced school closures had the greatest effect on its employees who have limited resources for childcare. All of the provider’s 17 communities in South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky have been affected by school closures.

In response, the company this month started an employee assistance program to provide affected workers with up to $500 each month for childcare services. The company initially planned to offer that benefit to all of its employees through the end of March — though the company has discussed extending the benefit longer, if need be.

“The burden on some of our team members is having to choose between coming to work or staying at home to care for the children,” Stephen Chapman, Dominion’s vice president of sales and marketing, told SHN. “Our mission and vision is to honor God through service to seniors, and we can’t fulfill that without our employees and team members.”

While $500 each month is likely not enough to cover traditional childcare services, Chapman said he hopes the money will help employees pay friends or family members to share some of their burden. And, while the initiative is costly, it’s worth doing, he added.

“We understand that there’s going to be some revenue loss due to this and lack of move-ins,” Chapman said. “But we just feel like this is something we need to do, and we hope other providers follow suit.”

And some other providers are indeed following suit. For instance, Peregrine Senior Living is offering a $50 daily childcare stipend to its roughly 700 employees spread across 10 communities in New York and Maryland, according to President Stephen Bowman.

“We thought we would share the burden and give them a subsidy of $50 per day …to keep our employees, to some degree, worry-free about how their children are being taken care of,” Bowman told SHN.

The stipend is driven in part by a need to prepare for potential staffing shortages. When the pandemic first began shutting down schools, the company surveyed its employees and found many of them might be adversely affected by closures.

“We didn’t want to have a lot of call-ins and staff shortages, and therefore not be able to provide care,” Bowman said. “That’s what was really motivating us.”

Wilsonville, Oregon-based Avamere has also rolled out a child care stipend as part of a comprehensive package of employee benefits related to Covid-19. The Service Employees International Union called Avamere’s approach a model that should be adopted across the industry.

Other communities — like Garden Spot Village, a nonprofit life plan community that serves nearly 1,000 older adults in New Holland, Pennsylvania — are skipping the stipend and providing the childcare directly to their employees.

Garden Spot Communities CEO Steve Lindsey had encouraged employees to think about alternative childcare options when schools began to close throughout the state earlier this month. But for some employees, this wasn’t possible. That prompted the provider to think about more creative ways to meet that need, Lindsey explained.

“For those who can’t, or didn’t have the resources or the availability of other people to care for their children, we set up a temporary childcare facility on our campus,” Lindsey said. “We understand their challenges, and we’re doing everything we can to make sure that their family’s needs are met at the same time our residents’ needs are met.”

Garden Spot already had the infrastructure in place to look after kids on its campus, as the organization runs a camp for grandkids and kids each summer. To make sure the kids aren’t bringing Covid-19 with them, the community screens them, including by taking their temperatures when they arrive with their parents. Currently, the camp has between five and seven kids in attendance per day, Lindsey said.

Meeting the ‘call of duty’

Other providers are keeping staffing levels high by rallying their employees with pay raises and other incentives.

For instance, National Church Residences has through April 30 increased all of its frontline caregivers’ pay by $5 per hour. With the pay raise, the nonprofit’s lowest-paid employees are earning $18.50 per hour. The organization also recently distributed a “crisis compensation payment” of $250 for full-time and $125 for part-time employees.

There are other benefits beyond the pay raise, too. National Church Residences employees also get access to free telemedicine services and get two weeks of pay should they fall ill or need to care for a loved one who has. And, workers get Covid-19 tests processed for free, should they need one.

The initiative represents a new investment of more than $3 million, according to Danielle Willis, senior vice president of HR for National Church Residences.

“We understand that we are asking them to continue to go to work and take care of some of the most vulnerable people … while simultaneously addressing challenges within their own lives,” Willis told Senior Housing News. “We just wanted to do our best to not only express recognition for what they’re doing, but also for what they’re going through.”

All told, National Church Residences has about 2,800 employees working in 340 communities in 25 states and Puerto Rico. The communities span the continuum from affordable senior housing to traditional senior living and long-term care.

As of Friday, the organization had six confirmed Covid-19 cases — three among residents, three among staffers — at communities in New Jersey, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio. Though National Church Residences started these benefits before its first positive test, the seriousness of the pandemic underscores the vulnerable position many employees are in as they answer the caregiving “call of duty.”

“It truly is our employees responding to that need, responding to that call, that ultimate duty, to serve our residents,” Willis said.

While many providers view new workforce initiatives as urgent necessities in their Covid-19 response, the hefty costs associated with them are likely to exact a toll as the pandemic persists. In requesting a $20 billion allocation for senior living providers in the $2 trillion federal stimulus package passed last week, Argentum and the American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA) specifically cited labor costs among the reasons why providers are under enormous financial pressure.

The final stimulus package did not include the $20 billion set-aside for senior living specifically, but providers will have access to a total of $600 billion in grants and loans available to health care providers. Some operators will also have access to money allocated to small businesses. And operators’ capital partners are also preparing to give leeway in some areas; for instance, real estate investment trust Ventas (NYSE: VTR) on Monday announced a rent deferral program for April. The REITs’ triple-net lease tenants can defer 25% of their April obligation until Oct. 1 or the receipt of government assistance.

And, providers are relying on some of their key partners to help ensure adequate staffing as well. Due to their large scale, some senior living partners and vendors have workforce flexibilities that are advantageous in the current situation.

One such company is Atlanta-based hospitality services company Morrison Living, which is part of the Compass Group and provides dining services to about 500 senior living communities. Through Compass, Morrison has access to a labor pool of thousands of associates.

The idea is that, as other Compass clients such as schools or sports and entertainment venues scale down their operations, Morrison can shift employees where they’re needed, according to the company’s vice president of national accounts, Angus Brown.

“We can pull associates that are already vetted, onboarded, and trained in hospitality, and move them into our senior living operations,” Brown said.

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