Senior Living Providers Get Creative to Improve Workforce Retention Amid Pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has injected new stress and fear into senior living workers’ lives, and this has prompted some providers to implement new strategies in order to retain them.

Flexible scheduling, higher pay, free meals and other services were not standard fare in the senior living industry before the pandemic, but providers now wield these tools with greater frequency as they seek to stay ahead of staffing shortages. Much of that has to do with the fact that senior living employees are experiencing far more mental stress than they were just seven months ago, according to Lisa Fordyce, an executive vice president at OnShift.

“Employee retention is going down because of the high-risk work environment and the pay associated with it,” Fordyce told Senior Housing News, referring to what OnShift’s customer success team hears from the providers it serves. OnShift is a Cleveland-based firm that provides senior living workforce software and services. The company recently shared with Senior Housing News some preliminary data from its to-be-released 2020 Workforce 360 report.


But for some providers, higher turnover is not a predetermined outcome. For example, at Summit Vista, a life plan community in Taylorsville, Utah, turnover and retention have not been a big challenge — even as the state in July reported the lowest unemployment rate in the country at 4.5%.

The life plan community implemented new staffing strategies at the outset of the pandemic, and has held morale-boosting events for employees in the months since. These changes, including a dramatic shift in how workers are scheduled,has helped the company retain the workers it has, according to Tineka Hardwrick, Summit Vista’s director of human resources.

“It’s our culture,” she told SHN. “Our culture starts with our leadership … and how we make employees feel. We’re like a family here.”


Culture is also what helps keep employees coming to work at Caledonia Senior Living, the North Riverside, Illinois-based senior living arm of non-profit organization Chicago Scots. Since the pandemic began, the organization has focused not only on developing its culture from within, but also on bringing people in that are compatible with that culture.

“Culture is huge, and hiring right,” Caledonia Senior Living CEO Gus Noble told SHN. “There is a calling [in senior care], and if we can hire people that hear that calling, we’re doing something right.”

Turnover still a top challenge

Employee turnover was the No. 1 hurdle for senior living providers last year, with 72% of providers listing it as the top workforce challenge in OnShift’s 2019 Workforce 360 Report. But with the Covid-19 pandemic at hand in 2020, senior living providers found that finding and hiring qualified job candidates became the No. 1 challenge, and employee turnover fell to the No. 2 spot at 57%, according to preliminary findings from this year’s still-unreleased report.

Other data also support the notion that turnover remains a primary concern for senior living providers. For instance, there has been a notable increase in the number of providers that are relying on temporary labor to fill staffing shortages, according to results of the Executive Insights Survey from the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC).

About 35% of respondents reported using agency or temp workers when NIC conducted this survey relatively early in the pandemic, but that number rose to 57% in the latest round of the survey, which occurred between Sept. 15 and Sept. 27.

In the last seven months, the pressures that have motivated senior living employees to find new jobs have changed. With the pandemic in full swing, employees are now more focused on staying safe, and on getting enough time off if they become sick. That has prompted some operators to retool their employee assistance programs (EAP) and remind employees that these programs exist.

“Employers are changing and adapting to the pandemic, and in how they’re handling their retention efforts,” Fordyce said.

While burnout was a real risk before the novel coronavirus, it is now an even greater one. OnShift has tracked a 50% increase in call-offs and a 12% increase in overtime hours for employees, according to data collected from its employee scheduling software.

“There’s some mental wear and tear that goes along with this,” Fordyce said. “As caregivers, we’re compassionate, we care and we show up even when we’re exhausted and tired.”

To get ahead of those pressures, OnShift has noted a variety of strategies providers can utilize. They range from free childcare, flexible spending and free meals to an increase in base pay, extra uniforms, transportation services and mental health benefits. Fordyce also noted a senior living operator that started employing chaplains in order to keep employees engaged spiritually.

Communication is also vitally important — and that’s a two-way street. Senior living companies should be prepared not only to talk to employees, but listen to them.

OnShift tracked a 28% increase in messages sent through its employee scheduling software in the first few months of the pandemic, with main topics of communication including paid time off and sick leave, PPE, regulatory updates and safety practices.

“They may have ideas and innovations on how to support residents and their colleagues,” Fordyce said. “It gives the employee confidence that their employer is looking out for their safety, that they are looking out for their wellbeing.”

In addition to focusing their efforts on younger workers, providers would also do well to implement strategies that help retain their workers who are older than 50, according to Cate O’Brien, assistant vice president and director at Mather Institute, the research arm of Evanston, Illinois-based senior living nonprofit Mather.

“Even in the context of a pandemic, there is still a worker shortage, and a real need to focus on keeping people, certainly in the health care industry,” O’Brien told SHN.

Older workers are likely to want many of the same things as younger workers. But two strategies that may appeal to them specifically are flexible work schedules and programs that foster physical and intellectual wellness, according to a pre-Covid workforce survey from Mather Institute. The survey analyzed responses from 232 employees who are at least 50 years old and working at nine senior living communities.

According to the survey, the most common and likely reason workers over 50 leave their jobs is to pursue other priorities or interests, such as hobbies, time with family and friends, or further education. So, O’Brien suggests that providers take stock of their flexible or part-time scheduling options as well as their wellness programs for areas where they can improve.

The study also found that workers who felt their workplace was a positive environment for people of all ages reported higher job satisfaction, made them less likely to want to leave their employer and reduced their feelings of burnout.

“This is something that maybe [providers] hadn’t thought about before,” O’Brien said. “But our study suggested it’s worth taking a look at, and to consider how they might promote that kind of environment.”

Strategies for retention

At Summit Vista, turnover peaked just before the Covid-19 pandemic kicked into high gear in March. But the community has not had to struggle with turnover during the pandemic as some others in the senior living industry have, according to Hardwrick. The community’s average turnover rate is currently 23.6%, well below its target of 35%.

That is perhaps not surprising for Summit Vista, which ranked no. 20 among small- and medium-sized providers on the Best Workplaces for Aging Services list in 2019. All the same, the low turnover rate exemplifies the provider’s success in dealing with employee retention.

When Covid-19 hit, the life plan community adopted a two-tiered schedule that helped with turnover. The community sent home all of its staff who could work remotely, separated its essential workforce into two teams and boosted their pay.

“We had ‘A’ and ‘B’ teams, and they worked seven days on, seven days off,” Hardwrick said. “And in those seven days on, they worked 65 hours but they were paid for 80.”

The schedule gave employees the confidence that, if they or a loved one got sick, there would be time to stay at home. It also gave employees 15 hours of extra pay for their hard work during a scary time. While Summit Vista’s caregiving workforce has since returned to their pre-Covid staffing schedules, the community’s back-of-the-house employees liked the change so much that it’s their new normal, Hardwrick added.

Summit Vista also worked to adapt some of its pre-Covid practices, like holding a summertime party for employees and their families. Instead of hosting a big party this year, the community hired a beloved local food truck called Waffle Love to sling treats for employees and residents who enjoyed it outdoors while socially distancing.

“They could order whatever they wanted from the truck,” Hardwrick said. “It helped the residents, along with the employees, feel like we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic.”

Summit Vista

Meanwhile, near Chicago, Caledonia was taking a similar approach to retaining workers. In addition to relying on its strong culture — like a tree relies on its deep roots to keep it from blowing away in a thunderstorm, Noble said — the organization has also implemented creative benefits for workers.

Contributions from generous donors have allowed Caledonia to buy its workers meals such as pizza, burgers or Chinese food. The organization also gives employees a bag of groceries every week, a practice it’s kept up for the past six months. Not only does that practice boost morale, it also helps employees avoid public places where they risk coming into contact with the novel coronavirus.

The organization linked up with renowned artist David Lee Csicsko to help pay for these efforts as part of a Scottish-themed fundraiser campaign called “Heroes for Heroes.”

“We sell T-shirts, and coffee mugs, umbrellas … that raise money to support the groceries, and the bonuses, and also to buy PPE and pay for testing,” Noble said. “If we’re asking for [employees] to make a commitment to show up to work and take care of themselves outside of work … then we have to make commitments to them that they recognize and appreciate.”

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