John O’Connor

By any reasonable measure, the staffing situation across long-term care is a mess.

Show me an operator who claims to have no hiring or retention problems, and I’ll show you an operator who likes to stretch the truth.

Given the economics of this sector, many facilities are in no position to pay much more than what amounts to an entry-level wage. This, despite the fact that the work is hard, the hours are long and often require availability for nights, weekends and holidays. And by the way, our nation’s unemployment rate is at a five-decade low. There’s no need to wonder why job candidates aren’t lining up around the block to sign up.

Capitalism at work? Kind of. But the picture is anything but pretty.

So what’s to be done? One development we’re seeing in many municipalities lately is a push for a higher minimum wage. To be sure, the idea has populist merit. Why wouldn’t it?

But it can also have an ugly underside. For Exhibit A here, let me direct you to an opinion piece in Friday’s Wall Street Journal entitled “Seattle’s wage mandate kills restaurants.” In it, author Simone Barron writes that as a result of a $16.39 minimum wage requirement that kicks in next month, the restaurant where she has worked for the past six years will be closing.

Same goes for two additional restaurants Barron reached out to since. As she notes, “I’m struggling because of a policy meant to help me.”

“I’m proudly progressive in my politics, but my experience shows that progressives should reconsider minimum wage laws that hurt the very workers they’re trying to protect,” she concludes.

There would seem to be a cautionary tale here for those who see a higher required pay rate as the answer. And providers might find some comfort in the blowback. But they shouldn’t gloat too much.

For regardless of whether the push for higher minimum wages grows or fizzles, an industry-wide Achilles heel remains. It amounts to this: Most nursing homes expect workers to do extraordinary work for compensation that is anything but.

That reality shows no signs of abating any time soon. Until it does, chronic staffing woes probably won’t, either.

John O’Connor is Editorial Director for McKnight’s.