‘Act Very Differently:’ Atria Senior Living, Sonida, Vi Retool Staffing for the Future

When it comes to senior living staffing, operators in 2024 must do things differently than before.

Senior living companies have taken many steps to bolster staffing in recent years, including raising wages for employees creating new benefits and offering greater flexibility in scheduling. With a low unemployment rate of 4.1% nationwide, talent pools remain shallower than in past years and competition for qualified candidates remains tough.

Faced with those challenges, operators of today must “think and act very differently,” according to Atria Senior Living SVP of Human Resources Meg Pletcher.


“You’ve got a smaller talent pool and the long-range view of it not really getting much better, so we have to be really thoughtful about who we’re hiring and be a bit slower about it,” during the recent SHN Staffing Summit, held virtually.

Operators including Atria, Sonida Senior Living (NYSE: SNDA) and Vi are forging ahead with strategies to attract a new generation of workers while meeting the preferences of current ones. At the same time, they are increasing the quality of the people they do hire by revamping recruitment and other back-office functions.

Blowing up recruiting, retooling retention

Staffing has long been a senior living industry issue. But in 2024, operators are adapting to meet evolving trends in hiring and retention.


Like other kinds of employers, senior living operators are contending with trends including “ghosting” from job applicants to younger Millennial and Generation Z workers quickly changing jobs, according to employment website Careerbuilder.com. Gen Z could account for just under a third of the U.S. workforce by 2030, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Ribar said that has led operators like Sonida to try and learn more about the incoming generation of workers. Needs and wants change from one community to the next, which is why the company has not taken a one-size-fits-all approach to staffing.

“Whether it’s on the front end of the recruiting, or it’s the hiring, onboarding, retention and development … we’ve got to be close enough to the needs of our local leadership as a support center,” Ribar said.

Vi has gone through a “recruiting transformation” with contract recruiters focusing on hiring clinical staff. That led to Vi realizing hiring success when having recruiters focus on specific departments, said Vi Living Vice President of Human Resources Operations and Talent Renee Fath. The company also recently launched a new career site.

“We’ve blown everything up and rebuilt it over the course of three years,” Fath added.

Positions like CNAs and servers are still hard to fill, according to Fath. Given the difficulty of finding those workers, the company is “trying to shift our efforts more to focus on developing our own CNAs – and I think that’s what we need more of as an industry,” she said. Vi has also tried to hire higher-quality workers from the start.

Atria also focuses on employee quality. The company uses talent-mapping to determine where an employee might fit best within its workforce.

“It really helps us to identify, ‘This person is here on our talent map, they’re ready to go if we don’t find something for them, we will lose them to the competition,’” she said. “You have to constantly be evaluating and assessing to figure out who is the right fit.”

Ribar said Sonida uses a “talent partner model” for new workers, with regional recruiters who provide communities with a short list of qualified candidates and the corporate office providing support.

“Finding the right team members is the same thing as the sales process – you’ve got to have a great reputation, you’ve got to build a funnel of places where you’re going to get references from, and the best way to get get great people is to be referred by someone who already works in our setting,” Ribar said.

Pletcher said employee engagement surveys and exit interviews have helped the company improve retention.

“You want a core group of people that you’re not worrying about [whether] you are going to lose them to the competition,” Pletcher said. “We’re trying to be a little bit more balanced in how we approach that instead of constantly just reacting.”

Leadership development remains a top priority for some senior living operators, with Sonida, Vi and Atria all working to find career development opportunities for staff identified with leadership potential.

“We are realizing that people stay at companies for the leadership and leaders create the culture,” Pletcher said.

Sonida has reported success in retaining and hiring leaders across its portfolio of 82 communities.

Flexible scheduling is another strategy operators have used to operational success in the past. While operators can’t match a company like Ikea or Amazon with regard to workforce flexibility, they do need to try and cater to what employees want in that department.

Staffing still in flux in 2024

Although many senior living operators have gotten a much better handle on staffing in 2024 than in previous years, the industry’s workforce is continuing to evolve in new ways.

Vi has worked like many operators to better match care revenue to the cost of the services the company provides. But after three years of operators raising rent, Vi and other operators have fewer levels to pull in that regard. That is why Vi is focused on staffing expense control in the year ahead.

“We can’t keep passing on these big increases to our residents,” Fath said.

The good news is she believes wages have leveled out.

“So, unless something crazy changes, we’re not talking about [returning to] … the market we were just in, where you were keeping up with wages on a weekly basis or monthly basis,” Fath said.

In the next 12 months, Pletcher said Atria is keeping an eye on the FLSA overtime rule, which she said would have an impact on staffing budgets if more workers are eligible for overtime.

That said, she added that Atria has benefitted from more wage transparency across the U.S. that has shown it “we’re paying what we should be paying.”

“I think there are going to continue to be little pockets where we may have some [wage] compression that we have to deal with,” Pletcher said.

Ribar said he believes a top issue for operators in the future will be basing staffing on “what your residents need, when they need it, how often they need it and who’s providing the care.”

As Sonida moves away from sticking to traditional staffing ratios, it is instead piecing together the most efficient ways to care for residents. Technology such as advanced nurse call or fall-detection systems can help make the difference.

He also believes that operators in 2024 must understand the nuts and bolts of the care they provide in order to more properly charge for it.

“The companies that are going to be most successful in senior living in the next five years are going to be the ones that spend the time and effort to create retention, increase retention, stabilize their workforce and really understand their staffing model,” Ribar said. “The revenue component of our business will benefit from the tailwinds. The labor side of the world, from a cost perspective, has to be where we differentiate as an industry and as a company.”

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