Kimberly Marselas

More money, more benefits, more flexibility.

It’s the worker refrain we’ve been hearing, repeating and relaying in our headlines and on our pages for months now.

As the skilled nursing sector has shed hundreds of thousands of jobs over the last two years, we’ve had plenty of professionals try to explain why providers can’t get staff to stay.

And, as my colleague Danielle Brown reported yesterday, plenty of folks are going straight to workers for their answers. With each new poll, survey or data drop, we try to dig a little deeper and understand the reality of the nursing home staffing situation.

It seems like just about everyone who cares even a little about nursing homes has gotten really good at asking, and answering, “Why?”

But I have to believe no one truly has solved for the “what” yet — that critical understanding of what will turn things around by more than a couple thousand jobs a month. Otherwise, our McKnight’s inboxes would surely runneth over from providers trying to tell the whole nursing home world about their incredible fix, right?

We all know the labor crisis can’t be solved with a single strategy.

But in sharing the same concerns over and over again, are we perpetuating the crisis?

Frontline attitudes about poor pay and unappealing benefits persist, according to a brand new survey from the National Association of Health Care Assistants. That’s despite major increases in pay for a range of positions over the last year — more than 7% for certified nurse aides nationally even in the months before inflation skyrocketed. That’s despite employers in the industry restructuring wages up and down their ladders; investing millions of dollars in workforce; and trying to increase staffing levels and layer additional perks and recognition on top of higher pay to decrease burnout and improve morale.

Does hearing other nurses complain — including, increasingly, those well-paid travel nurses — lead more nurses to find unhappiness in their work?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think anyone working in the sector during the pandemic (and long before it) more than earned a step-up over the last two years. My concern is more about shifting the focus from one of groaning about problems to the more proactive owning of solutions.

There’s more to the nursing home staffing story

I’d love to see more polls and proof about what does work. As I wrote last month, many of you are blessed with at least one of those stick-with-it-come-what-may warriors. The workers who show up day after day, year after year, propelled by some intrinsic motivation. 

But you also have less-tenured staff who have responded to raises with appreciation and a willingness to stay on. Those who have worked with you to find or create solutions like shared jobs or childcare support. Those who may be thinking of building a permanent career in long-term care.

When new CNAs trickle in now and then (though probably not as many as you’d like), do you try to understand what made them take the risk and try LTC?

Policymakers and lawmakers are debating, and in some places acting on, changes that reduce barriers to nursing home employment. Some, like building a labor pipeline and encouraging more nursing school opportunities, will take longer to cash in on.

But in the meantime, let’s hear more about what on-the-ground approaches have been proven to work, from the workers who’ve embraced them. We need answers from the provider level, from states that have embraced reform during these unprecedented times and from the national perspective to foster and spread whatever good workforce news exists.

Someone please do that study, and send along your results. I know a place where we can write a new kind of headline together.

Kimberly Marselas is senior editor of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News.

Opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News columns are not necessarily those of McKnight’s.