Nursing vacancies put homes in dire straits

  • Belknap County Nursing Home Administrator Shelley Richardson explains to county commissioners Tuesday the trouble the nursing home continues to have hiring people to fill vacancies on the nursing staff. Richardson said the main reason is that the home cannot offer pay that is competitive with other health care facilities. Michael Mortensen / Laconia Daily Sun

The Laconia Daily Sun
Published: 6/18/2021 4:53:19 PM

Hiring people to fill vacant nursing positions continues to plague the Belknap County Nursing Home. And if the situation does not change, the possibility that the facility might have to close is not altogether out of the question, according to the home’s administrator.

That dire outlook was given by Nursing Home Administrator Shelley Richardson to the Belknap County commissioners on Tuesday.

For Richardson, the numbers tell the story.

Since the first of the year, the nursing home has been trying to fill 16 full-time and four part-time nursing positions. But after six months, they have been able to hire people for just three of the full-time positions.

The reason for the lack of staff? The shortage of nurses throughout the state, made worse by the much-lower pay the nursing home offers compared to other elder-care or health care facilities in the area, Richardson explained.

Entry-level pay for a nursing assistant at the County Home is $12.76 an hour. Richardson held up a copy of Tuesday’s Daily Sun to point out a half-page ad for a private nursing home in Laconia which is offering to pay as much as $23 a hour for nursing assistants.

“You can make $15 an hour working at Walmart,” she told commissioners.

Because the nursing home is currently operating with just two-thirds the number of nurses that it is allotted, Richardson has placed a freeze on new admissions. The home has 69 residents at present but has a capacity for 27 more.

“I have some families who have been on the waiting list for a year and a half,” she said.

“We really need to look at this,” Richardson said. “Are we going to run just a half of a facility?” she asked rhetorically.

In response to a question from the commissioners, Richardson said that if the facility were to close she would need to give the residents and their families a minimum of 30-days notice of the closing and she would do everything possible to find those residents a placement in a new facility.

Since the start of the year, the nursing home has received 45 applications for nursing positions. Of that number, 10 returned phone calls and were interviewed. Nine declined the offer of a job due to wages, she said.

“One RN (registered nurse) accepted the 11-to-7 supervisor position, returned to her current employer and was offered $15 more an hour to stay. Needless to say, she withdrew her job acceptance,” Richardson said.

Registered nursing at the county home make under $30 an hour, meaning that this applicant was offered a raise by her employer that was 50 percent higher than the county’s pay scale.

“If we’re going to have a nursing home, we’ve got to pay to do it,” Commission Hunter Taylor said.

Taylor suggested that the county use some money that will be forthcoming from the American Rescue Plan to supplement current wages.

“Either that or tell the people we can’t afford to have a nursing home,” he said.

Commission Chairman Peter Spanos said another option would be to offer signing bonuses as a way to attract new employees. He also noted that county employees have access to a good health insurance plan and also benefit from the state’s public employee pension system. He said those benefits, along with incentive pay, help morale.

State Rep. Mike Sylvia, who heads the County Delegation, blamed the hiring problems on the higher unemployment benefits that have been available during the pandemic. He predicted the nursing home’s problems will ease after the additional federal benefits end on Saturday.

On Tuesday, the state announced its unemployment figures for May which showed that the unemployment rate was at 2.8%, tying with several other states for the lowest rate in the country. The Federal Reserve considers a base unemployment rate (the U-3 rate) of 5.0 to 5.2% as “full employment” in the economy.

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