Dangerous work with low pay, and we wonder why they leave?

John O'Connor
John O'Connor

Talk about piling on: Yet another study is pointing out the lousy conditions that many long-term care employees face.

Investigators at the University of California, San Francisco concluded that workers are leaving the field in droves. The two main culprits: poor wages and dangerous work conditions.

Study authors examined 2003-2013 data from the federal government's Current Population Survey, which collects people's self-reported information about job transitions. On average, for any year during the study time period, about 13% of long-term care workers said they had newly entered the field, while 21% said they had left.

When people are fleeing like refugees, it's obvious that a supply problem is likely to ensue. So it's no surprise that we are seeing new initiatives that aim to bring more people into the field.

During this week's State of the Union address, President Obama suggested the federal government work with states to offer two years of free community-college tuition to students who maintain good grades. As many of these students would presumably be studying nursing, such underwriting can only help.

“Community college education is especially critical for the nursing profession,” said National Nurses United Executive Director RoseAnn DeMoro in a statement.

As efforts to fill leaky buckets go, I suppose this qualifies as a good start. But let's get real: Supporting any initiative that makes Obama look good is just about the last thing a Republican-controlled Congress is likely to do.

Besides, there are bigger fish to fry. Yes, there is a staffing shortage in long-term care. But that problem is the residue of an even larger challenge.

With all due respect, working in long-term care is about the last thing many frontline employees want to do. That's not to say that there aren't many thousands of dedicated employees working their tails off every day to make life better for residents. Clearly, there are. And each and every one is to be commended.

But as was earlier mentioned, the pay in this sector is remarkably low. Put another way, would you work for the pay and hours you're offering your frontline staff? Throw in erratic hours, and workplace dangers that make construction sites look like Safety Town, and it's not too hard to see why nursing homes and assisted living communities are often recruiting against local big box stores and fast food establishments for talent.

Would better training help? Absolutely. But until wages get better and workplace injuries are reduced, nobody is going to accuse long-term care of being a worker's paradise.

John O'Connor is McKnight's Editorial Director.

Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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