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Those still on the job face a “crisis on steroids” as omicron inflames staff shortages

Those still on the job face a “crisis on steroids” as omicron inflames staff shortages.

In the eight years she has worked at nursing homes, LaToya Francis, 34, has been yelled at, kicked at and had feces thrown at her for little more than the minimum wage. She endured it because she loved being a certified nursing assistant, she said. But she’s not sure she can hold out much longer.

As the omicron variant of the coronavirus drives record staff shortages at nursing homes nationwide, Francis has increasingly found herself alone on her 12-hour overnight shifts at Bridgepoint Healthcare’s skilled nursing facility in Southwest Washington, fighting off panic attacks as she tries to feed, clean and rotate more bed-bound residents than she can handle. Some nights, she retreats to a corner of the facility, where she calls her partner and sobs. Other nights, all she can feel is anger. “I’ve never, ever felt this disrespected,” Francis said.

Frustration is surging among the low-wage workers who make up the backbone of the nursing home industry, as tens of thousands of their colleagues call out sick with covid-19, inflaming shortages that already were at crisis levels. Hailed as “heroes” during the early months of the pandemic, these workers, most of whom are women and people of color, say they’re facing untenable levels of pressure.

Government support has failed to end the crisis, advocates say, allowing care for the elderly and the infirm to worsen, forcing facilities to limit admission or close entirely and clogging up hospital beds. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nursing home industry has lost more than 420,000 jobs since the start of the pandemic, reducing its workforce to the size it was 15 years ago.

Some employees chose to retire early rather than face the intense workload and coronavirus risks at their jobs. Others have been lured away by companies, including Amazon, that offer wages which nursing homes say they cannot compete with.

Even as the omicron variant retreats, the staffing crunch will persist, nursing home leaders and unions say. At community colleges, interest in skilled nursing courses has plunged, with some class sizes dropping to half what they were before the pandemic. Of those training to become nursing assistants, many are avoiding nursing homes, where they would earn a median annual wage of $30,120, according to federal data, and are looking instead for jobs as travel nurses or home health aides.

Meanwhile, the aging trend that the U.S. Census Bureau calls the “gray tsunami” looms ever closer, with all baby boomers — the original cohort was more than 70 million people — set to be at least age 65 by 2030.

That threat is now prompting alarm among elected officials over what workers such as Francis say they have known for years: They’re essential but underpaid and overworked.

“This is a crisis on steroids,” said David Grabowski, a Harvard Medical School researcher who studies the economics of aging and long-term care. “The long-standing issue of underinvesting and undervaluing this workforce is coming back to bite us.”

Bridgepoint Healthcare chief executive Marc Ferrell said that his company has tried to offer competitive wages but that it’s a “well-known fact” that the nursing home workforce has shrunk.

“This is a national issue,” he said, “not a Bridgepoint issue.”

‘I can’t live like this’

Few places in the United States have been harder hit by the omicron variant than the District of Columbia and the surrounding states, where new case counts per capita rose sharply in early January, outpacing the rates of infection in many jurisdictions with lower vaccination rates.

In Virginia, where 9,500 or so nursing home workers have left the industry since February 2020, about 2,700 care workers have tested positive for the coronavirus this month. In Maryland, 7 in 10 nursing homes have reported new outbreaks, and as many as 5,000 workers have had to stay home after testing positive, said Joseph DeMattos Jr., the president of the Health Facilities Association of Maryland.

D.C.’s health department did not respond to inquiries on infections at its long-term care facilities, but leaders at 1199 SEIU, a union that represents health-care workers in the District, said the staffing situation has never been worse.

All three jurisdictions reissued states of emergency to ease the staffing shortages, including by extending the expiration dates for nursing licenses and allowing nursing graduates to start work more quickly. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) also implemented testing requirements for staffers and visitors at nursing homes.

But such efforts fall far short of what is truly needed, workers say.

“It seems like the folks in charge … are trying everything except what the front-line workers want,” said Yvonne Slosarski, a spokeswoman for the local 1199 SEIU division. “We know what actually retains workers: It’s more pay, more leave and safer working conditions.”

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