Spread Thin

Retirement communities and workers struggle over labor shortages

Garden Way Retirement Community, right near the Gully Bike Path and Autzen Stadium, has a perfectly trimmed lawn and manicured flower baskets outside. But inside, Amber Fox, executive director of Garden Way Retirement Community, is struggling to hire new staff. 

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fox says that it’s been challenging to keep a full crew and that the culinary and housekeeping departments are suffering the most. Though labor shortages for retirement communities have existed for decades, the pandemic has made the situation significantly worse. 

However, some retirement community for-profit companies, like the one that owns Garden Way, don’t offer union protection, and wages are based on experience, which could cause issues in hiring or retention. 

Fox says the labor shortage is due to unemployment benefits exceeding Garden Way’s wages or staff preferring to stay home from fear of contracting the virus. Now that Oregon requires staff to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18, long-term care facilities could lose more staffing as workers quit in protest.

Unlike restaurants, hotels and other businesses that can accommodate employee safety, retirement communities can’t adapt. Instead, they need adequate staffing to protect the most vulnerable community to COVID-19 — the elderly. 

The labor shortage issue didn’t stop once vaccinations were openly available to the public. Although statewide unemployment rates have declined drastically — 5.2 percent remain unemployed compared to the 13.2 percent in April 2020, according to the Oregon Employment Department — Fox has not received many applications. 

Ben Morris, communications director from SEIU Local 503, says that Oregon retirement communities had hiring issues years before the COVID-19 pandemic. SEIU 503 is the Oregon chapter of the Service Employees International Union

Morris says he’s been receiving concerns about staffing from managers for nearly 20 years. One of the reasons that retirement communities are struggling, according to Morris, is low wages.  

“Among the long-term care industry, in general, poverty, wages are the norm,” he says. “People are making just above minimum wage, or even just minimum wage, for a job that is really hard and that people don’t want to do.” 

The American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, which represents 14,000 nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the country, released a survey in late June reporting that 94 percent of nursing home providers said they had labor shortages in the last month. In assisted living communities, 81 percent said the same. More than half of these care providers say that critical staff quit during the pandemic.

Fox says that there are quite a few benefits from working at Garden Way — it offers daily access to wages, flexible scheduling for students and paid time off with health benefits for full time employees. Garden Way also offers free meals while on shift. However, Garden Way’s workers are non-union, and Fox did not disclose the employee starting wage base.

Garden Way is one of the many retirement communities owned by the company Sunshine Retirement Living, which has buildings in 16 states. 

To accommodate the lack of staff, Fox says they cross-train so everyone can step in to assist other departments when necessary. Fox has also stepped in to serve meals and help out in the dining room. Although they manage, she says that the staff gets overwhelmed. 

“I believe, when we have been extraordinarily short, it has required a lot of extra effort on our part to keep things running optimally,” Fox says. “I’ve been really blessed to have such a strong team.”

As a union, Morris says that SEIU advocates for employee rights like pay raises, which would help retain current staff. Turnover, according to Morris, exacerbates the problem of having to train and replace people constantly.

For-profit Avamere, Oregon’s largest nursing home chain, raised its wage floor to $18 hourly through a contract with SEIU this year, which was a 30 percent wage increase for some. Soon after, other chains, such as Prestige and Empress, followed suit. 

Morris says this is a step in the right direction to keep workers at facilities. “You have to respect people,” he says. “Part of that is compensation.” Sunshine Retirement Living, the company that owns Garden Way, was not listed as one of the companies raising wages. 

Lee Bliven is the founder of CareWorks Lane County and a former ombudsman, an official who investigates resident complaints. He works with residents and workers alike. For Bliven, the quality of care for residents cannot be overlooked in these labor shortages. Bliven says that it’s important to advocate for the elderly because they’re often isolated or vulnerable and that sometimes residents are afraid to speak up.

Bliven, like Morris, knows that the labor shortage has been an uphill battle for years. He says that it could have a significant effect on residents. 

“They don’t have enough time to change them. Clean them up. Feed them. Talk to them. The people are way overworked and they’re spread so thin,” Bliven says. “There’s always somebody else to take their place if they die or have to move out. The issue is that management is for profit.”

When Bliven talks to residents, he tries to address any issues they might be having and bring them to the forefront. At CareWorks, Bliven says that he’s allowed to be more vocal with resident concerns with the interest of initiating positive, fair change for centers like Garden Way, than he was able to be as an ombudsman. 

Morris says that the best way to advocate for worker and resident treatment is through proper wage increases, benefits and respect. If retirement communities paid people better, Morris says labor shortages wouldn’t be as big of an issue. 

“Our members really care about their jobs,” he says. “Everyone who does this does it because it’s kind of part of them. When I talked to nursing home workers who have been doing this for 15 years, the folks who stick it out and do it long term, they are the biggest advocates for the residents that have anyone in the situation.”