With 40% of Frontline Workers Under Financial Hardship, Senior Living Providers Step Up Support

Working in a senior living community in the midst of Covid-19 is far from easy, but for many associates, stress is stemming largely from their situations at home. Senior living providers that can find ways to alleviate these challenges could retain more workers in this time when maintaining staffing levels is crucial.

In a recent survey of nearly 2,900 employees in senior living, 80% of frontline workers expressed appreciation for being employed and having a caring team. However, 40% of surveyed workers reported being in financial hardship due to Covid-19, Jacquelyn Kung, CEO of the Senior Care Group at Activated Insights, told Senior Housing News. Activated Insights is a Great Place to Work Company that is behind Fortune’s annual best workplaces in aging services list.

Safety is another focus area. Although 60% to 75% of frontline workers reported feeling safe or very safe, two-thirds of those in direct caregiving roles asked for more personal protective equipment (PPE) and Covid-19 testing.

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These challenges can be difficult to address, but senior living providers such as Walnut Creek, California-based Covia and Wichita, Kansas-based Larksfield Place are implementing special programs to address these pain points.

Challenges on the home front

Of the 40% of workers who said they are facing financial challenges, the top three reasons are:

— Spouse or other family members had lost their jobs or had their hours reduced

— Higher grocery bills due to having more mouths to feed at home

— Higher expenses due to greater need for household supplies

But, even employees who aren’t undergoing financial hardship could benefit from more support on the home front.

About 50% of all employees surveyed said they could use help for their family, with the most commonly requested categories being increased pay or bonuses; help acquiring essentials such as grocery staples; and grocery gift cards. About one-third of respondents said they have children to care for, with half of these workers saying they would appreciate more support in this effort.

With mass layoffs occurring shortly after Covid-19 forced shutdowns of restaurants, hotels and other major industries, many senior living providers have already boosted pay rates. But the survey findings suggest that pay is just one form of support that employees value and need.

Recognizing this, Covia has adopted a “holistic” approach for its roughly 1,100 employees, Covia VP of Human Resources Prab Brinton told SHN. Covia operates five life plan communities and nine affordable housing buildings in the Bay Area and provides a range of services outside those properties as well.

Covia COO Rob Shaefer elaborated on the idea of a beyond a worker’s financial needs.

“We really wanted to recognize that our relationship with employees is not just a financial transaction,” he told SHN. “It is much deeper than that. We care about them as a whole person, just like we care about our residents as a whole person.”

With that in mind, Covia has undertaken or is planning several initiatives, including: financial assistance; more floating holidays to expand paid time off; and a program through which employees can choose a benefit from a variety of options. These include “fun” benefits such as a Netflix or Disney Plus subscription, while other options include a Costco membership. 

“That way, it’s really catered to what works for them and their family,” Brinton said.

Similar to Covia, Larksfield Place has put in place several programs aimed at supporting different facets of employees’ lives, said VP of Human Resources Chelsea Powell. The single-site continuing care retirement community (CCRC) employs about 375 people and serves between 400 and 500 residents.

The Activated Insights survey revealed that Larksfield associates were avoiding grocery stores out of an abundance of caution, and were short on items such as meat, milk and bread. In response, Larksfield stocked its on-campus market with additional items and promoted it as an option for staff to purchase these staples through payroll deductions. And, Larksfield held education sessions to help associates learn how to use grocery delivery app Clicklist.

Larksfield’s “concierge department” is also doing grocery runs for residents, and is bringing back items for the community’s marketplace as well from these trips.

On the financial assistance side, Larksfield has long had a program called Caring & Sharing for employees in need, which has provided “immediate relief” for several workers, Powell said. Overtime is also available as a means to supplement pay, and the CCRC instituted paid sick leave even though aging services providers were exempted from government mandates. Finally, Larksfield’s leadership team is in the process of finalizing a pandemic bonus to be paid out likely in June.

The initiatives at Covia and Larksfield come with a cost, and labor-related expenses are up across the board in senior living due to the coronavirus pandemic. So far, though, both providers say that they have been able to manage the costs associated with these workforce programs.

“It’s definitely a balance, and trying to make sure that you don’t go overboard and completely blow your budget, but balancing how do we make sure that we provide what our staff need right now, so that they are not stressed and bringing that stress to their jobs every day,” Powell said.

Larksfield Place has been approved for a loan through the federal CARES Act, and the provider’s CFO is exploring “every different financial path” available, she added.

Covia has been able to “marshal its cash,” Schaefer said. As capital projects got put on hold due to Covid-19, the organization has been able to funnel more money into workforce-related programs. In addition, levels of absenteeism have been low. With predictable overtime and replacement labor coming in under its normal run-rate, money has been freed up for the rewards and appreciation programs, Schaefer said.

“Having the scale of an organization like ours has really made that possible, as well as some really prudent financial moves early on to prioritize the care and the people side of this,” he said.

Keeping morale up at work

Even as they are trying to support their workers’ challenges at home, senior living providers must also keep them safe and motivated while on the job. The safety of health care workers unfortunately has emerged as a major challenge during Covid-19, due to supply chain disruptions and a national shortage of personal protective equipment and supplies.

Among the surveyed workers, nearly two-thirds of those in direct caregiving roles said that more PPE and testing are required, with gloves, masks, gowns, wipes and sanitizer among the needed items.

Both Covia and Larksfield Place have enough PPE at the moment. Covia has spent about $1 million on supplies in the last month and has two large orders on the way.

“We’re crossing our fingers that they come through,” Schaefer said. “They’re from reputable vendors, but … getting things through customs has at times been a real challenge.”

Larksfield Place has had to “get creative” in certain ways — including by accepting donations and sourcing backup items such as paint coveralls and raincoats in place of gowns — but has been able to get what is needed, Health Care Center Administrator Karen Wilkerson said. 

“We’ve always ordered our par level each week,” she said. “We know of a few buildings that, if they weren’t ordering their par level, the vendor would only sell them what they’ve been ordering on their recent history.”

So far, Larksfield Place has not had any diagnosed cases of Covid-19 among its residents or staff. One resident at a Covia affordable housing community has been diagnosed with Covid-19, one life plan community resident has been diagnosed, and one employee has been diagnosed and now has recovered, Schaefer said.

In a good place with worker safety, Covia and Larksfield Place have also turned their attention to maintaining clear and transparent communication in order to manage anxiety and boost morale.

Covia recently rolled out a system for communicating via text and has been leaning on existing channels such as a “gratitude board” on its intranet. Larksfield Place is also communicating over a variety of channels and updates its website daily with Covid-19 material, including information about measures being taken by public officials and by senior living industry organizations, as well as the latest information about what is happening at the CCRC, and a “prayer of the day.” Powell has helped spearhead regular spirit-boosting, such as days to wear particular items of clothing, and including residents in efforts such as holding signs reading “You’re our heroes” to greet workers arriving on campus.

Negative press about how senior housing and care communities does wear on employees, as does the constant coronavirus news grind, Powell said. The best antidote is consistent, face-to-face communication with workers.

“The biggest thing is making sure staff know that they have a place to go and people to talk to, and we’re trying to do fun things to keep them motivated,” Wilkerson added. “We encourage the staff to concentrate on the amazing jobs they are doing keeping the residents happy and safe. I mean, it’s a rough time and it’s hard to listen to the news, but it’s hard to not listen to it — you have to just keep doing what we’re doing.”

Leaders at Larksfield Place and Covia report that worker morale generally has remained high, and while they point to their own initiatives as helping, they also are quick to say that their teams are driven by a sense of mission and an urgent desire to beat the threat of Covid-19.

“They really are heroes,” Schaefer said. “It’s an inspiration to be a part of their team.”

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