Facing COVID Burnout and the Competitive Market, How CT Healthcare Networks Keep Staffing Levels High

For the past two years, Connecticut health professionals have been on the front lines of the worst public health crisis in the last century.

They continue to be in high demand, as highlighted by stable levels of health care employment in the state since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But competition from other employers and a limited workforce have complicated hiring at hospitals and other health care facilities, which are also trying to bolster retention and development of their employees to ensure they have enough long-term workers.

“We are challenged by talent because we are all fishing in the same pond,” Melissa Turner, director of human resources for Yale New Haven Health System, which includes Bridgeport, Greenwich and Yale New Haven hospitals, said in an interview. “There’s just more competition for talent in our market.”

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As it was before the pandemic, health care makes up one of the largest sectors of the Connecticut economy. Some 270,000 people worked in health care and social assistance in Connecticut this February, down 2 percent from a total of 275,000 in February 2020, according to the state Department of Labor.

The total number of employed people in the state in February 2022 totaled about 1.64 million, down 3 percent from February 2020.

Today, hospitals across the state are hiring for a variety of clinical positions, such as nurses and medical technicians, and non-clinical jobs. But they are dealing with a limited supply of workers in the wake of widespread retirements and resignations among health care workers in the past two years that are part of a “big quit” affecting many industries.

“We continue to try to find creative ways to meet the needs of our patients and close staffing gaps,” Turner said. “But the workforce is considerably smaller than it had been several years ago. Frankly, it doesn’t seem to be growing exponentially anytime soon.”

At the same time, hospitals face stiff competition for job seekers from other health care providers and employers in other sectors. As of March 25, US job postings are up 58 percent from the “pre-pandemic baseline” on Indeed, one of the world’s largest job sites.

Despite those challenges, the number of employees in the last two years has increased slightly for Yale New Haven Health. Its latest total of about 30,000 employees compares with about 28,500 at this point in 2020.

Nuvance Health, which includes hospitals in Danbury, New Milford and Norwalk, has also kept its employee levels steady in recent years. It now operates with about 12,000 employees in Connecticut and New York.

“Although staffing is an ongoing challenge, our communities can rest assured knowing that these internal staff development and outsourcing strategies have been working,” Norwalk Hospital President Peter Cordeau said in a new report.

“Nuvance Health filled a record number of functions during our last fiscal year and we welcome about 85 new employees each week across the health system. This has resulted in continued excellent care for our patients and communities.”

At Hartford HealthCare, which includes Hartford Hospital and St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, several hundred people have been hired in recent months. Like Yale New Haven Health and Nuvance, it is still looking for many more recruits.

“The reality is that it is an extremely competitive market,” John Rossi, vice president of Fairfield and Hartford HealthCare system operations, told Hearst Connecticut Media in December. “Supply is not keeping up with demand.”

The ability of health care providers to offer competitive salaries varies significantly. In 2020, the most recent year for which full-year data is available, the average annual wage in the private sector totaled $42,710 for nursing and residential care facilities, $73,992 for hospitals, and $77,195 for outpatient health care services, according to the State Department. of work.

The state average was $75,411.

“The more you raise the salary, the more likely you are to get more candidates. Compensation is important to job seekers,” AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist at Indeed, based in Stamford, said in an interview.

“I think that as some of the ‘scars’ of the pandemic fade, it’s possible that in the long term, interest will start to shift to health care. In the next year, I would say that the interest will probably shift towards higher paying occupations in the profession.”

The demand for healthcare workers is unlikely to dissipate any time soon. Employment nationwide in health care occupations is projected to grow 16 percent between 2020 and 2030, “much faster than the average for all occupations,” with the addition of about 2.6 million new jobs, according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

‘Cultivating our talent from within’

As they look for new hires, officials from the state’s largest health care systems said employee retention and development also remain top goals.

“We’ve really tried to focus on our talent management and planning by creating programs to develop our employees,” Turner said. “Really, more than ever, we’re growing our talent from within.”

Among related initiatives, Yale New Haven Health announced Thursday a partnership with Fairfield University, Gateway Community College, Quinnipiac University and Southern Connecticut State University that aims to graduate at least 557 additional nurses over the next four years.

Yale New Haven Health is committing approximately $1.7 million over the next four years to provide scholarships and books to students who might not otherwise be able to attend school.

To increase retention, health care providers have enacted a series of changes over the past two years aimed at mitigating the backbreaking cost of working during the pandemic. Those measures include increased opportunities for remote work, an option that has been made easier by the growing use of telemedicine.

“We are not in a traditional job market. The COVID-19 pandemic has influenced people’s decisions to leave the workforce, whether due to burnout or early retirement,” Cordeau said. “The pandemic has also changed many people’s expectations about how, when and where they work.”

Health systems have also sought to ease the burden on employees of juggling work and family commitments. Stamford Health, which includes Stamford Hospital, offers grab-and-go dinners to all of its approximately 3,700 employees.

“At the end of a very long day, being able to pick up dinner, at a very reasonable price, to take home to their families means a lot to our employees. They stop me all the time and tell me how much they appreciate it,” Kathleen Silard, CEO and president of Stamford Health, said in an interview.

“We want to help create work-life balance and make sure that when you come to work we have created an environment where you feel valued and where your work is meaningful.”

pschott@stamfordadvocate.com; Twitter: @paulschott

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