As the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down many businesses around the world, seniors housing is in a tough spot. In charge of caring for seniors — those most vulnerable to the disease — communities must stay open, but while doing everything possible to ensure the safety of residents.
The industry already faced a staffing shortage for frontline workers. Now many of those workers either can’t come into work for fear of transmitting COVID-19 to an older family member, or are resigning out of fear of contracting the disease themselves.
“Early on, say three weeks ago, when caregivers became fearful of being exposed to the virus we saw some quick, knee-jerk resignations,” said Greg Roderick, president and CEO of Frontier Management, which has over 6,000 employees. “We’re very fortunate that we have such a solid culture. Those who did stay are so committed and dedicated, and they embraced the efforts we all made to increase safety. Call-offs started slowing.”
The comments came during a webinar hosted by Seniors Housing Business and France Media on Tuesday, April 1. The hour-long program was titled “How to Recruit and Retain Caregivers in a COVID-19 World.” Panelists included Roderick, who oversees 108 communities; Lori Alford, chief operating officer of Avanti Senior Living, a boutique private-pay operator; Dan Williams, chief operating officer of Seasons Living, which currently operates 14 communities with a focus on standalone memory care; and Keven Bennema, president and CEO of Charter Senior Living, overseeing 17 communities. Charles Turner, CEO of caregiver software platform Kare, moderated the discussion.
Turner presented survey data from caregivers, gathered through the Kare platform, which showed that nearly 30 percent of workers expect to temporarily reduce their shifts or not work at all due to fear surrounding the pandemic.Approximately 60 percent of caregivers noticed an increase in workers calling off shifts.
Turner also noted that the government economic stimulus package has made some workers choose to stay home and unemployed. Those making less than $75,000 a year received a $1,200 check from the federal government, and those who qualify for unemployment benefits are receiving an extra $600 a week. The result is many people can make more money by not working right now than by working, said Turner.
“We were getting 150 to 200 caregivers a day applying to use our platform,” said Turner. “[Following the stimulus], that’s dropped in half.”
How to handle COVID in your community
Three of the four panelists represented companies that had at least one resident test
positive for COVID-19. The only one whose company hasn’t — Alford — was the first to admit that it’s really just a matter of luck whether a community will have to deal with the virus.
“Just because you have COVID in your building doesn’t make you a bad operator,” said Alford.
“It’s almost luck of the draw if you have it in your building or not,” added Turner.
Out of 14,000 residents and employees, Frontier has had 26 positive tests thus far, said Roderick. After initial panic among the frontline staff, new policies calmed everyone’s nerves.
“We really took a hard stance on COVID early on, from cleaning to temperature taking,” said Roderick. “Those protocols that evolved have really carried us into a safe land and given our staff a great deal of confidence. As an industry, we’ve really come together to share best practices and disseminate that information very quickly to our communities.”
Seasons Living had its own outbreak, exacerbated by the nature of memory care, said Williams. Residents with dementia can sometimes forget that there’s a virus to worry about, and that they should stay in their rooms. One community had three residents and nine employees test positive. Within four days, 11 workers resigned out of fear. “We were scrambling just to have enough staff to take care of the residents.”
The key to pushing through the outbreak, he said, was clear communication, honesty and full transparency, said Williams. The company updates residents, staff and families through social media, daily e-mails and a specific email address for answering questions about the virus.
“Throw the rulebook out and just keep doing the next right thing,” said Williams. “I was surprised how well all the employees and resident families took it, and how quickly they jumped on our side and supported us. We’ve been transparent about positive cases and not trying to hide anything.”
Charter has five communities with residents and employees that have tested positive, said Bennema. Education and clear communication have actually managed to turn what could be a hugely negative story into a positive one.
“Because of that communication, we wound up being on a local news report. Imagine this — someone wanted to do a news report on our community and it really turned out to be a positive,” said Bennema. “We showed what we were doing and how we were educating residents and staff.”
Show appreciation with benefits, acknowledgement
All four operators noted that frontline staff should expect bonuses and more resources during this extraordinary time. Avanti, for example, is offering a $2 per hour increase to frontline workers for “hero pay.”
“We want to be proactive and appreciative with our pay, not reactive,” said Alford “We let the executive directors roll that out so they could be the winners on that. The caretakers were in tears they were so happy.”
Bennema and his wife personally traveled and personally took over fora regional operations head who was overworked due to three other executives being out.Charter also added “incentive pay” and ran a fundraiser for employees who can’t work due to family members with compromised immune system.
Additionally, Charter’s health insurance provider agreed to waive the usual 60-day waiting fee, meaning new hires would immediately have health coverage.
“That was very significant,” said Bennema. “It really showed the connection we have with our employees. We want to help them, help their families and help them at home.”
Frontier also increased wages across its portfolio, with the amount based on the market and the severity of COVID-19 outbreaks in the area. For more benefits, the company implemented flexible hours and on-site childcare.
“We’re really showcasing the heroes we have on social media,” said Roderick. “Everyone on this panel agrees — we’re all very thankful to have strong, positive cultures. Our employees know we care about them.”
Seasons added bonus pay of $50 to $100 per shift and an extra vacation day for each month that an employee doesn’t miss a shift. Williams also called out his company’s culture of appreciation, crediting it for keeping employees working during this crisis.
“Money can only go so far. They have to like who they work for.”
Click here to listen to the entire webinar.
— Jeff Shaw