Kimberly Marselas

As I listened to a panel discussion on immigration and how increasing it might help address staff adequacy and quality in nursing homes, I couldn’t help but think of these potential workers being talked about like just another commodity.

Clearly, that wasn’t the intent of the panelists, who almost universally endorsed reform that would enable more refugees and others to gain U.S. residency as a way to bolster long-term care.

At least one speaker addressed how these workers might be vulnerable to exploitation with or without immigration reform — working in the shadows, sometimes living in the same home where they provide care for too many hours of the day, needing more to live on than their paychecks might afford.

Immigrants, speakers at the Brookings Institution event Tuesday said, generally lift up local economies; and when they move into new areas at higher-than-typical rates, they have also been linked to nursing home quality improvement.

The message is clear then that providers who want to succeed while on this recruitment journey must prepare for some key challenges; chief among them is the idea that these workers, like any others, will be real humans with real families and other very real problems that could make it hard to keep them committed to the workplace.

The goal should not stop at opening doors to workers from other nations. People can be part of the solution, but there must also be some reciprocity. Providers should give immigrant workers a seat at the table, prepare a feast and wrap them in a welcome that feels more than superficial.

Having more immigrants could actually drive down wages in the sector, noted LTC expert Howard Gleckman, even as it improves care standards by the simple fact that more workers are available. So, if these workers help buffer against rising labor costs, maybe you can invest in other services that support them in their new nation.

In a conversation last week on a totally unrelated topic, one provider mentioned to me the investments his company makes in wrap-around services for nursing home patients with behavior health diagnoses.

“Wraparound services” seems a perfect term for the kind of extras that might help immigrants thrive: language classes, cultural immersion experiences, driving courses, financial literacy sessions. Provide those for workers, and possibly their families, and they’ll see the relationship with their new employer as more of a two-way street.

Though you’ll want to encourage them to stand on their own, a little early co-dependence wouldn’t be the worst crime.

It is indeed the opposite — disregard for or disinterest in an employer’s success — that providers must guard against if they’re going to pay for immigration assistance and train new employees from around the world.

Julia Schmieder is a Berlin-based researcher studying the impact of expanded caregiving immigration and additional payments for families in Austria, and how that combo strategy strengthened care for the elderly AND their adult children.

With loosened restrictions on migrant caregivers working in private households (and paid through a new stipend), those adult children were able to stay engaged in their own careers, her team found.

Often, in Austria and America, family caregivers find themselves leaving the workforce at a pivotal time for both earnings and promotion potential. Allowing others to step into the void keeps native-born workers on their own career tracks.

We can acknowledge that many immigrants hope to gain when they come to the U.S. But if we increasingly lean on them to support our nation’s family, caregiving and economic priorities, let’s be sure would-be employers don’t leave them to flounder outside of working hours.

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

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