Erin Viale

It’s a pandemic paradox: How can we have both a staffing crisis and an unemployment crisis? 

At the end of 2020, 12 million Americans will lose their unemployment benefits. This is in addition to the 4.4 million who have already exhausted unemployment benefits.

As the date draws nearer, thousands are calling upon Congress to act, to extend unemployment benefits to these individuals. The benefits ending in such close proximity to Christmas has provided much room for hyperbole, with news outlets comparing Congress to both Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch.

“A miserly Congress has said, Enough! No more benefits for those Americans struggling to stay afloat,” said the Anniston (Alabama) Star. “Congress Should Stop the Scrooge Routine and Extend Jobless Benefits,” The Guardian shouted from a headline.

Last month, the Washington Post shared stories of individuals who will suffer when their benefits run out, like Karin from Jupiter Beach, FL. 

“After losing her job as a contractor with the U.S. Education Department in March, Karin has been relying on the PUA insurance to support herself and her 14-year-old son,” the paper reported. “She said it has been a struggle since Congress let the extra $600 in benefits expire at the end of July, but she’s been getting by, hawking some designer handbags on sites like eBay and picking up a few odd jobs like pet-sitting when she can.”

The article shared that Karin is worried she will not be able to pay her rent or buy essentials once the benefits run out.

Meanwhile, all over the country, long-term care administrators spend time wondering how we are going to staff our nursing units, our kitchens, our housekeeping departments, and our reception desks.

Where is this disconnect? How is it that the long-term care industry can need so much help, and the rest of the world is unwilling to provide it?

The last time Americans were asked to make such drastic changes to their lives was, by my estimation, during World War II. Americans were asked to ration food and fuel, to limit their use of goods and to remain in their homes during blackout drills. America then responded by pitching in. They planted victory gardens, conserved their goods, and women went to work in factories in the place of men.

I can’t help but think that we, the long-term care industry, never got our Rosie the Riveters. We never had the opportunity to welcome a workforce of patriots who were willing to jump in when the country most needed them. 

Why are we as a country more worried about Karin from Jupiter Beach who has had to resort to selling her designer bags than we are about overworked, overtaxed healthcare workers who desperately need help? How can we simultaneously wonder how we’re going to staff our facilities and how we’re going to pay 12 million people? 

When this crisis hit, the healthcare industry mobilized into an emergency management juggernaut, cramming nonstop education, emergency supply management and countless contingency plans into our already overwhelmed days.

Outside of our healthcare walls, millions of Americans were encouraged to stay home. Some worked from home, but many others stayed home with no income due to job loss. Did we squander an opportunity to train those individuals to help? 

Do we not still have an opportunity to do so? CMS has provided ample opportunities for willing individuals to help at skilled nursing facilities, including relaxing certain employment requirements and providing a temporary nurse aide program. 

My message to Karin from Jupiter Beach and those in her situation is this: Stop selling your handbags. Drive to your local long-term care facility. I promise they are hiring. 

Eri Viale is a senior professional in human resources and a licensed nursing home administrator based in Pittsburgh.