Nurses working together in hospital

An innovative “educational leave” program for certified nursing assistants being implemented in Wyoming allows frontline workers to split their time between nursing home shifts and pursuit of additional nursing degrees. State leaders are also pushing for a related tuition reimbursement program to add more incentives for the state’s healthcare workers. 

The educational leave program is already active and allows two dozen or more CNAs to advance their careers and meet the needs of rural and frontier facilities within the state every year, according to Stefan Johansson, director of the Wyoming Department of Health.

“Essentially you have a 40-hour-a-week employee in some cases working 20 hours a week and spending the remaining 20 studying for that degree or certification,” Johansson told McKnight’s Long-Term Care News

The number of weekly hours dedicated to education varies based on the needs of the employee and the logistical needs of their facility.

After the completion of that education, the employee — now a licensed practical nurse or registered nurse — is given a contract ranging from two to five years to work with the state and fill the needs of the state’s most chronically understaffed facilities. 

Employees are paid for full time work during this period of educational leave, with their later work contract considered the state’s return on investment. Care workers are expected to repay the state if they quit before the term of their contract runs out. 

Johansson estimated the cost of these degrees at anywhere from $8,000 to 20,000 per nurse for the state. 

“Investing that amount of money in an employee that could retain in this facility for three, four, five or more years to me is dollars well spent and also improves our workforce,” he said. 

More tools for retention

Facing the same mounting staffing issues as the rest of the long-term care industry, and especially those facilities in rural areas, Wyoming leaders are going all in on building a toolbelt of programs to retain and invest in the workers they already have.  

The Department of Health is seeking $500,000 in tuition reimbursements to be added to next year’s state budget. The additional funds would supplement the educational leave program by providing extra assistance to care workers with financial need. 

“The idea here is to couple the education leave concept that we already have … but also sweeten that incentive for the employee,” Johansson explained. 

He emphasized that maintaining a variety of tools is key to meeting the unique staffing and retention needs faced by rural and frontier states with aging populations. 

The reimbursement proposal is making its way through the budget markup process and has received praise from healthcare leaders in the state. 

“Through my training of Wyomingites, I have discovered firsthand that funding support has been the biggest barrier to pursuing education in healthcare,” said Jennifer James, PhD, who oversees CNA training at Wyoming Healthcare Training Centers. 

Johansson recommended that other primarily rural states experiment with similar programs, emphasizing the educational leave program as an ultimately inexpensive way to invest in the existing workforce and reduce the need for difficult and expensive out-of-state recruitment.

“The educational leave portion of that is… essentially a no-cost line item,” he said. “Even in tough times… if you can make it work logistically and you have the staffing and scheduling to be able to support it, it’s a low-cost or even no-cost alternative to contracting for agency labor.”