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Belknap County finds itself outmatched in effort to recruit, retain workers

  • Melissa Brace, a corrections officer with Belknap County Jail, answers the jail’s main phone while also monitoring all activity inside and outside of the facility. Brace said she was first attracted to the job because law enforcement runs in her family. She has stuck around for 15 years because she said she enjoys the “busy-ness” of the work, and helping the inmates. Adam Drapcho / Laconia Daily Sun

The Laconia Daily Sun
Published: 8/31/2021 12:41:04 PM

The Belknap County Nursing Home and the County Corrections Department are seriously short-staffed and the situation has become critical.

Commissioners agreed that the situation is dire, and said they are pinning their hopes that the County Delegation will approve using American Rescue Plan funds to boost employees’ pay short-term.

“Everyone is anxious and is hanging on,” County Administrator Debra Shackett at the commissioners’ meeting Thursday. “Hopefully they will stick around.”

The delegation has scheduled a public hearing for Sept. 9 to hear the commissioners’ request to use $1.4 million in American Rescue Plan funds this year, about $600,000 of which would be used to pay stipends for all county employees.

The turnover at the nursing home – the county’s largest department – has been especially high. Since the first of the year, 38 employees have left. In some cases those departures were from the same job position, meaning the position was filled only to become vacant again a number of weeks or months later.

“I’ve been a nurse for 40 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Nursing Home Administrator Shelley Richardson said.

The nursing home has 113 positions, with 26 of those positions vacant.

Richardson said the nursing home staff is constantly adjusting to the shortages in an effort to keep the facility operating at a proper level of service. But if the rate of attrition continues the home could be forced to make hard choices.

“We’re two (registered) nurses and three LNAs away from ‘What do you do,’ ” she told the commissioners.

Richardson said she is bracing for more resignations if the federal government mandates that nursing home staff workers receive COVID vaccinations. Currently, the vaccination rate among the staff stands at 65%, she said.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is developing an emergency regulation requiring staff vaccinations within the nation’s Medicare and Medicaid-participating nursing homes, of which the county nursing home is one.

Corrections Superintendent Adam Cunningham said he is short five corrections officers and that officers are required to work overtime almost daily.

“They are dedicated, but that starts to wear,” he said.

The shortage of personnel at corrections facilities is not unique to Belknap County, Cunningham stressed.

“It’s a significant problem all over the state,” he said.

Commission Chair Peter Spanos said he is hopeful that the delegation will approve the use of the ARP funds which will allow county workers to get a boost in pay. He said his optimism was based on “good feedback” that he has been getting from individual delegation members that he has spoken to.

“The best we can hope for is to retain existing staff,” Shackett said. “But it doesn’t solve the long-term problem.”

The root of the problem, she said, is that private employers offer much higher wages for jobs that are often less demanding than positions at the nursing home or corrections facilities.

Cunningham acknowledged that corrections officers who have left have gone to less-stressful jobs that also pay more money.

Entry-level pay for a nursing assistant at the County Home is $12.76 an hour, more than $2 an hour less than someone can make at Walmart, Richardson pointed out to county commissioners recently. By contrast, private nursing homes in the area are offering almost twice what the county home pays nursing assistants.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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