Labor shortages close Kansas nursing homes


By Rose Conlon |
Friday, October 28, 2022

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Nursing home staff shortages are easing in some states. But in other states like Kansas, it’s still critical. The state’s aging population could continue to propel the industry into crisis.



An alarming shortage of carers in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities is finally starting to ease in parts of the country. But in other regions, it is still critical. For example, in Kansas, more than half of the state’s nursing homes are experiencing a labor shortage, more than double the national average. Rose Conlon of member station KMUW and Kansas News Service reports.

ROSE CONLON, BYLINE: It’s never been easy for Tolu Kadiri to keep the five Kansas retirement homes she operates fully staffed, but it wasn’t that difficult.

TOLU KADIRI: The problem is not so much hiring people – when I talk to other operators. The problem is retaining people. It was like a revolving door.

CONLON: And it’s not just a shortage of nurses. It’s also a lack of certified nursing aides, who are some of the most common nursing home staff.

KADIRI: Health care has always had shortages. But even more since COVID, many caregivers are discovering that they can go to an agency and be paid more.

CONLON: The use of recruiting agencies has skyrocketed during the pandemic as an already severe shortage of nurses has worsened. Now Kansas nursing homes want lawmakers to further regulate agencies they believe are price gouging. Dana Weaver of LeadingAge Kansas, which represents nonprofit nursing homes, says the crisis has forced 35 long-term care facilities in the state to close or downsize since 2020, and more could follow. .

DANA WEAVER: And the only reason they were able to maintain it, at least for agency costs, is because there was federal assistance because of the pandemic. But once that’s completely gone, we’ll see a lot more closures.

CONLON: The reason it’s so critical in Kansas is because of the demographics of the state — a growing elderly population and a decreasing number of young people to care for them. By 2036, the number of Kansans aged 65 and over is expected to increase by more than 40%. Administrators fear this could drive up agency staff rates even further. But Rebecca Givan, a professor at Rutgers University, says nursing homes could reduce their reliance on agencies by doing more to retain their own workers.

REBECCA GIVAN: There’s an irony because the way to do that is to pay them more. And often these establishments don’t want to pay them more, but they actually pay many times that amount to the agencies.

CONLON: However, workers say agencies make a demanding, low-paying line of work more bearable. For example, CNAs typically earn a median annual income of $30,000 and often work multiple jobs to make ends meet. One such worker is Katelin O’Herron, a single mother from Lansing who quit her job as a staff in a hospital intensive care unit during the pandemic.

KATELIN O’HERRON: I started hearing people talk about the agency staff. And they say, yeah, there’s this agency help, and she makes $25. And I was like, are you serious?

CONLON: Now O’Herron goes to area nursing homes through an agency.

O’HERRON: So it’s hectic, and there are days when I don’t eat. I don’t have a break.

CONLON: It’s not that different from her job as a clerk, where she only made $15 an hour. But the higher agency salary is worth it. It also gives her a sense of control in a workplace that can be physically and emotionally draining.

O’HERRON: So if I had, you know, a really bad shift, I can be like, like, OK, well, I’m not going to take a shift over there for, you know, about a week. Like, I need to give myself a break.

CONLON: A break, she says, from the burnout that pushes many healthcare workers off the field, including people like Jennifer Terrien, a Kansas City registered nurse who left long-term care the last year after decades in the field. She says the current shortage is a symptom of the industry’s longstanding prioritization of profits over workers and residents.

JENNIFER TERRIEN: Sometimes you’re understaffed, it really makes you feel like you’ve suffered some kind of hurt feelings because you can’t give every patient the care and attention they deserve.

CONLON: A dire situation in Kansas and a microcosm of a problem playing out in nursing homes across the country. For NPR News, I’m Rose Conlon in Wichita. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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