The staffing crisis at Minnesota nursing homes got so bad last fall that members of the National Guard took turns feeding and caring for residents.
Today, 23,000 job openings exist in long-term care in the state – about a fifth of the industry’s workforce – a situation that has caused some facilities to limit admissions, while that others close.
Minnesota lawmakers are now proposing sweeping solutions to fix the problem, including a Senate Republican package rolled out last week to spend $1 billion on wage increases for long-term care workers, personal care assistants, employees of group homes and services for the disabled.
“If you’re thinking: A billion dollars? That’s a lot of money. Yes, it’s true,” said Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, the bill’s lead sponsor. “We’ve been working with all sorts of members and stakeholders to try to stretch it as far as possible and do as much good as possible.”
But there is a wide divide on the issue between Republicans and Democrats, who say the Senate is not doing enough to meet other needs revealed by the pandemic. This includes access to affordable childcare across the state, a major obstacle to building the workforce after the toll of the pandemic.
“Childcare is the workforce behind the workforce,” said Department of Social Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead. “If we’re going to tackle the workforce crisis facing this state, meaningful investment in child care will have to be part of the solution.”
Under Abeler’s bill, nursing homes and facilities for the aged would receive $358 million in wage increases, which would be about a $2 increase for some workers in the field. Personal care assistants would see an 11% increase, while group homes and disability services could see up to 7% pay increases.
The Senate wants to spend an additional $322 million to hire more workers in long-term care centers and group homes and as direct care providers by offering retention and hiring bonuses. The funds could be used to help train up to 20,000 new staff, and the bill would make temporary licensing changes to allow previously licensed nurses to work in facilities.
At one point last fall, the long-term care sector was losing about 1,500 employees a month as workers were driven out in droves by the long hours and pandemic hazards. About three-quarters of providers are limiting admissions, despite a growing elderly population in the state.
“It’s not that they don’t want to deal with these people knocking on their door, they just don’t have the staff,” said Libbie Chapuran of LeadingAge Minnesota, who added that 15 homes of retirement have closed since 2019, and four in 2022 alone.
The staffing crisis is also hitting group homes, including 10 Cardinal of Minnesota-operated facilities that closed in southern Minnesota in March. Rochester City Council member Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick and her family have been affected by the closure of a group home her sister lived in for years. Space and staffing issues prevented the family from finding a new home for their sister, who has cerebral palsy.
“There are no beds in the county to accommodate my sister’s needs,” Kirkpatrick said.
Currently, Kirkpatrick’s sister lives with her 77-year-old mother, a retired nurse, but it’s not a long-term solution for her family. His mother is exhausted; Kirkpatrick spends about 20 hours a week caring for his sister, and it affects his work on the city council.
“Our legislators have known this is going to happen for years and they haven’t done anything about it,” she said. “The situation is dire and the state really needs to address it.”
In February, Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, called on Gov. Tim Walz to bring in National Guard troops to respond to group home closures in her district, as he has done with nursing homes. in October. His fellow citizens have since found housing with adequate services, but the situation has highlighted the crisis facing these providers.
“Financial models just aren’t viable,” she said. “Most people would agree that one of the main roles of government is to take care of those who are most at risk and cannot take care of themselves.”
DFL Governor Tim Walz’s budget includes a 4% rate increase for salaries for personal care assistants, as well as funds to cover COVID safety improvements in long-term care facilities. He also wants to increase funding over the next three years for a successful program that helped cover the initial costs to train more than 1,000 certified practical nurses this spring.
House-controlling Democrats are pushing through measures similar to the governor’s in a $700 million health and human services package this session, including higher rates for personal care assistants and improvements to the facility security.
They also invest in an industry labor incentive fund to help cover retention, post-secondary costs, transportation, and childcare costs for workers. Rep. Jen Schultz, DFL-Duluth, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the divided Legislature passed a historic human services package in the last session that steered relief toward long-term care , and that the industry had received direct assistance from the federal government during the pandemic. .
Their proposal for this session is broader, she said, also reaching out to behavioral health personnel, as well as mental health and community health workers.
“That was our priority this session, to address the shortage of health personnel,” she said. “Some groups have powerful lobbyists and have the power to lobby the Legislative Assembly, and there are groups without power or voice and we need to represent them as well.”
Writer Trey Mewes contributed to this story.