As health care workforce shortage persists, employers boost incentives

By: - July 2, 2021 6:15 am
A nurse pushes a patient down an empty hallway.

The pandemic has exacerbated hiring challenges, but the workforce shortage began a few years ago. (Getty Images)

It’s a good time to be looking for a job in health care. 

Catholic Medical Center is offering $10,000 signing bonuses to registered nurses with three years of experience. Rockingham County is offering not only signing bonuses to licensed nursing assistants but also tuition and a paycheck while they get their license. State corrections officials are hiring a temp agency to help fill vacancies.

Yes, the pandemic has exacerbated hiring challenges, said Lauren Collins-Cline, spokeswoman for Catholic Medical Center in Manchester. But this shortage began a few years ago, she said, as the state’s population aged, creating a double whammy of greater health care needs and a shrinking pool of workers. 

“In addition to struggles finding and keeping nurses, we are also looking at techs, lab workers, and all of the support staff that help keep the organization working,” Collins-Cline said. The hospital is hoping the pandemic that forced existing health care workers to rethink their careers will also prompt others to rethink city living for less congested settings. “When you are in New Hampshire, you can have every bit a challenging and rewarding career and a lifestyle that isn’t too shabby,” Collins-Cline said.

The state Department of Corrections has a 65 percent vacancy rate for master’s level social workers and a 13 percent vacancy among nurses. Even worse, it has been unable to hire any master licensed drug and alcohol counselors at its men’s prison in Concord, a serious concern when 60 to 70 percent of inmates nationally are estimated to have a history of substance misuse. 

Wednesday, the Executive Council approved the department’s request to hire a temp agency to help fill openings at a cost of $795,000 over three years. Spokeswoman Tina Thurber said the agency has relied on temporary hires for many years to meet its constitutional duty to provide health care to all inmates. 

In addition to using a temp agency, the department has also created recruitment videos aimed at dispelling myths about the prison environment. Registered nurse Bianca Desjarlais promotes employment benefits and the chance to learn from other health care workers in one video. In another, Diane York, a clinical mental health worker, describes feeling safe inside the prison and the rewards the job brings her. “I love to see someone’s growth throughout their progress in the program. . . . And those moments when you find out someone is doing really well.” 

Thurber said: “We continue to work hard towards educating the public on the reality of prison vs. the TV perception of prison and the negative connotations that can go along with it.” 

Nine years ago, Rockingham County relied on one hiring agency to fill its health care openings. In 2020, it spent $3.7 million on nine agencies to fill openings. The challenge prompted the county to start its LNA training program and pay bonuses. “We never had signs out front saying we’re hiring,” said Thomas Tombarello, chairman of the board of commissioners. “I’ve never seen it like this.” He hears the same stories from county commissioners around the state, he said.

Pamela DiNapoli, executive director of the New Hampshire Nurses Association, said some workers are leaving their jobs to take other health care jobs in less stressful environments. 

DiNapoli has cautioned her nursing students at the University of New Hampshire against jumping at a job for just the cash incentives. Extra vacation or flexible hours may be more appealing, she said. 

“I was encouraging them to (consider) the work-life balance they are going to accept,” DiNapoli said. “Nurses are valuing time.”

The workforce shortage is hitting the mental health field as well. 

Jay Couture, president and CEO of the Seacoast Mental Health Center, said her agency is encouraging staff to work remotely when their jobs allow it and hopes to expand its internship programs with local schools, which have proven to be good recruitment tools.

Recruitment, however, is about to become even more challenging. The state’s 10 community mental health centers are expanding services significantly under their new contracts with the state. The centers are exploring recruitment plans now and some are beginning to offer bonuses, Couture said. Even with cash incentives, the centers’ inability to match salaries provided by private providers remains.

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Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications.

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