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'It's affecting care': Long-term care facilities call on changes to better pay and retain staff

Oregon's population of people 75+ is projected to grow to 10% by 2030. Long-term care companies are fighting to provide incentives to recruit and retain staff.

OREGON, USA — Long-term care facilities and senior living communities face a growing challenge in the ongoing workforce shortage.

"The COVID-19 impact on long-term care has been devastating," said Phil Fogg Jr., CEO of Marquis Companies. "There's no playbook for what we're going through right now."

Marquis operates senior living, assisted living and memory care facilities such as Hope Village in Canby.

Tracy Berg is the social services director there.

"I love my job," Berg said. "[But] there's definitely been times when you can feel burnt out."

Berg and Fogg said an already existing shortage of nurses and certified nursing assistants (CNAs) is now much more severe. 

To help bridge the recruiting gap, Marquis is offering free classes and training to people to become a CNA.

"We're investing in every single level of position," Berg said.

RELATED: OHSU faces renewed hospital bed capacity crunch

Marquis attributes the shrinking medical workforce to several factors: COVID fatigue, a growing number of parents staying home to help kids with remote learning and early retirements.

"I've never in my career seen the likes of this," said Mary Rita Hurley. 

Hurley is executive director of Our House of Portland, a residential care facility for people living with HIV. She has worked in long-term care for about 35 years and is struggling to hire caretakers now.

"It has always been tough, but oh my God, it's affecting care," Hurley said.

She lost one member of her small team to the vaccine mandate.

"It was emotional for all of us, and has left a huge gap," Hurley explained.

Hurley is now holding one to two patient beds open, as some staff work seven days straight. 

"We're burning them out," Hurley said. "We have called [recruiting agencies] for help. There is no help to send." 

Marquis lost .5% of staff to the vaccine mandate, but said most staff were already vaccinated well before that. His sights are set on the bigger picture.

"I feel like we have a health care crisis," Fogg said.

Fogg was recently selected as board chair of the American Health Care Association and is fighting for national change.

"Really a federal issue," he said.

Fogg is calling on more subsidized medical education programs and a national standard for Medicaid reimbursement rates to better help facilities pay and retain good staff. Some states reimburse at lower rates, and various types of facilities see different rates, too.

"It's not paying our bills," Hurley said of Our House. "So how is that sustainable? It's not."

The need for long-term care workers is likely to grow further.

The Office of Economic Analysis projects Oregon's population of people 75+ will grow from 7% (2020) to 10% by 2030.

In an attempt to keep workers in the long-term care industry, the Oregon Department of Aging and People with Disabilities is providing cash incentives and reimbursement rate increases for facilities to retain nursing staff.

Berg hopes her story inspires others, too. She changed career paths several years ago.

"I used to work in hospitality. I really love people," she said. "Every single day, if I'm doing my job correctly, I get to see the difference that I'm making in the life of seniors." 

RELATED: Opt-out option for Washington's long-term care tax begins Oct. 1