With COVID-19 cases and nursing home staff shortages on the rise, the state has reinstituted its stipend program for health care workers.
The program, which has now been extended through the end of the year, was established by the governor in April to incentivize healthcare workers to continue working during the pandemic. It allocated an extra $300 a week for full-time health care workers and $150 a week for part-time workers.
Nursing home staff have been without the income supplement for more than three months after the program expired in late July. Sununu said the program lapsed because there was not been enough federal support for the state’s budget.
The state spent nearly $60 million on the program and, as of late June, provided stipends to 23,000 frontline workers, including nurses, housekeeping staff, and kitchen staff.
Since the stipend program expired in July, homes have been in desperate need of more staff.
One Newport nursing home wrote a desperate message on Facebook asking community members to volunteer after 11 members tested positive for COVID-19.
Brendan Williams, the president of the New Hampshire Health Care Association, said many long-term care facilities had struggled with attracting and keeping employees even before the pandemic. The health care workforce became particularly vulnerable when outbreaks in nursing homes across the state began.
Williams said many facilities can afford to pay their nurses only a little more than $12 an hour, while Target raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour. It’s no wonder facilities have had a difficult time retaining employees, he said.
Williams said while the stipend is needed and appreciated, it won’t fix many of the larger, systemic problems that have led to a staffing shortage that preceded the pandemic.
Thousands of licensed nursing assistants in the state have allowed their licenses to lapse in the last year, leaving nursing homes in a precarious staffing situation, according to data from the New Hampshire Board of Nursing.
Between June 2019 and May 2020, 2,381 nursing assistants allowed their licenses to lapse while only 1,672 new licenses were issued, ultimately creating a loss of 709 LNAs.
Even if there is an extra incentive for staff to work during the pandemic, Williams fears there just isn’t a large enough pool to draw from. Many homes have resorted to hiring temporary staff to fill in the gaps.
“It’s demoralizing to permanent staff – they’re not unaware they are paying agencies much more than they’re paying them,” he said. “But they have to do it.”
Chris Coates, the Cheshire County administrator, said the nursing homes in his county have, on average, a 25% vacancy rate. The shortage goes beyond LNAs – nursing homes are experiencing shortages in almost every position.
“The workforce shortage in nursing homes right now is at a critical, critical point,” he said. “It’s probably over that and over the cliff.”
Williams said he hopes this stipend program is a bridge to a more sustainable program to reduce shortages.
“In six weeks the program will end and in six weeks our staffing crisis will not end,” he said.