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Health care employment leads Long Island job growth

Jennifer Lillibridge Brendel, seen on Wednesday, April 13,

Jennifer Lillibridge Brendel, seen on Wednesday, April 13, 2016, heads the ultrasound division at Imaging at Great South Bay in Islip. She says her field provides job security. Credit: Barry Sloan

The health care sector has led the way in Long Island’s employment recovery, mirroring state and national trends, local economists and health care experts said.

It’s the only major employment sector that didn’t experience a net job loss during the steep recession that lasted from December 2007 to June 2009, said Shital Patel, labor-market analyst in the state Labor Department’s Hicksville office.

And health care has gained the most jobs of any sector since then.

Last year it led all employment gains by adding 6,200 jobs in the region, compared with 2014, its largest year-over-year gain since 1990, which is the earliest data based on the department’s current methodology, Patel said. Health care and social assistance, the sector’s formal name, had 215,000 jobs on Long Island in March, according to state data, and includes ambulatory services, hospitals and nursing homes.

And so far this year it remains the top job generator on Long Island. The average year-over-year employment gain in the first three months of 2016 has been 7,100 jobs.

At both the state and national levels, health care has also led job gains since the last recession ended, said Martin Kohli, chief regional economist in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Manhattan district office.

The trend is broad, economists said. “This isn’t just a Long Island story,” said economist Gregory DeFreitas, who heads Hofstra University’s labor-studies program. “It’s a national story.”

Local economists have warned for several years that job growth in some of the Island’s highest paying sectors, such as financial activities and manufacturing, is weak. But health care, with its wide range of wages, from highly paid doctors to lower-wage home health aides, has helped take up some of the slack, and proved to be the most consistent job generator for several years.

Several demographic, economic and social factors are fueling the hiring, local hospital officials said. They include an improved overall job market, the national Affordable Care Act, expansion of Medicaid programs, the aging of the population and the retirement of many baby boomer health care workers.

Seven of the largest employers on Long Island are hospital groups: Northwell Health, Catholic Health Services, Winthrop University Hospital, Stony Brook University Hospital, South Nassau Communities Hospital, John T. Mather Memorial Hospital and Brookhaven Memorial Hospital.

Local hospitals said the jobs most in demand include nurses, nursing assistants, ultrasound and radiology technicians, physical therapists, case managers and home health aides.

Nurses seem to be the most in demand, local executives said. Lou de Onis, interim chief human resources officer at Stony Brook University Hospital, said the hospital hired almost 160 nurses last year, up from about 115 in 2014, and expects to hire even more this year.

Paul Giordano, senior vice president of human resources at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, also said the number of nurses hired in 2015 surpassed 2014 hires. One way the hospital finds new recruits is through a specialty training program it offers to nursing graduates.

Stacey Pfeffer, Winthrop’s senior vice president of human resources and organizational development, also said the hospital has been hiring more nurses and expects the number to continue to rise.

“It has increased steadily over the past three years,” she said.

Rising employment has increased the demand for medical services as more Long Island residents, including many who had been laid off, find work and obtain medical benefits. The number of employed residents is at an all-time high, the latest state data show. The Island had 1.42 million employed residents in March, up 41,500 from March 2015. Meanwhile March’s 4.2 percent unemployment rate was the lowest for that month since 2007.

“When the recession hit, people lost their jobs and didn’t have health insurance,” Giordano said. “But now people have insurance again.”

The ACA, known popularly as Obamacare, has also increased the pool of people with access to health care benefits. Since New York’s health exchange opened in 2013, the number of uninsured New Yorkers statewide has dropped by almost 850,000, said NY State of Health, the state’ official health plan marketplace, in February. Meanwhile, the percentage of uninsured New Yorkers dropped to 5 percent, from 10 percent, between 2013 and 2015, the health plan said, citing Centers for Disease Control data. Local data weren’t available.

The expansion of Medicaid programs as part of health care reform has also boosted the ranks of the insured, and that, in turn, has meant more hiring.

“It looks like Obamacare is not slowing the growth of health care jobs, nor is it slowing the growth of most-private sector jobs, unlike what critics were predicting,” said DeFreitas, the Hofstra economist.

The Island’s population is graying, and is older than that of the state and nation. The median age in Nassau and Suffolk in 2014 was 41.3 years and 40.3 years, respectively, compared with 38.1 for the state and 37.4 for the nation, census data show. That has led to increased demand in particular for home health aides.

It’s one of the jobs Horizon Healthcare Staffing gets the most calls for, said Arthur Banks, managing partner of the Hicksville company. “There is a huge demand for health care aides on Long Island,” he said.

One reason: “Health care reform also encourages the use of home care for the elderly as an alternative to expensive nursing homes and hospital stays,” Labor Department economist Patel said in a Long Island report last year.

The health care industry will need to replace large numbers of aging workers on Long Island, experts said. The number of industry workers over the age of 55 has doubled since 2000, Patel said, and about 13,000 are over the age of 65.

Hospitals and other health organizations are responding to demands for more services with a mix of offerings that are less expensive than hospitals, such as urgent care centers and specialty practices.

“Hospitals are realigning services,” said Paul Connor, president and chief executive of Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport. “They are looking to expand outside the walls of the hospital.”

Connor said the hospital, which is joining the Stony Brook University Hospital network this year, will team with Stony Brook to provide medical services in nonhospital settings on the East End.

Tony Pellicano, chief human resources officer at Catholic Health Services, said: “The whole impetus is to be more efficient providers. Hospitals are becoming the places where the really sick people wind up.”

The number of free-standing emergency medical clinics, or urgent care centers, more than doubled in both Nassau and Suffolk between 2012 and 2014, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show. In Nassau they jumped from 17 to 39 and in Suffolk from 13 to 28.

“National health care reform has boosted patient demand for urgent care clinics, which are increasingly meeting the health care needs of the influx of newly insured patients,” Patel wrote last year. “Compared to doctors’ offices or emergency rooms, they have shorter wait times. They are open later into the evening or over the weekend.”

Northwell, the Island’s largest employer with more than 31,150 employees here, has 23 urgent care centers in the metro area, 19 of which have opened since January 2015, a spokesman said. Most are on Long Island.

They staff a wide range of jobs including diagnostic clinicians, medical assistants and administrative personnel, said Elaine Page, a human resources executive who is Northwell’s chief people innovations officer.

“It’s a big machine,” she said.

Earlier this month, Catholic Health Services, based in Rockville Centre, announced that it had acquired majority ownership in Beacon Health Partners, a Westbury independent physicians network that has the federal designation of accountable care organization, an ACA initiative that calls for the coordination of Medicare patients’ care to avoid duplication of services to control costs.

Doreen Tansi, director of coordination for CHS Beacon Health, expects to hire 20 more case managers, who are usually nurses, social workers or health coaches, to add to her staff of 12. They help patients navigate such things as referrals, home care and even transportation.

“We help to facilitate visits to the private doctors and avoid unnecessary hospital visits,” Tansi said.

Expanding hospitals also hire workers outside the health care field. A spokesman for John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson said that the institution has been hiring heavily in information technology and financial services.

The growth of health care has ignited economists’ concern about the rise of low wages. Some of the lowest paid health care jobs are also the fastest growing, such as home health aides, whose annual median income on Long Island is $23,250, state data show. That compares with a median income of $110,000 for the finance and insurance sector, the Island’s highest wage category.

“Obviously we would like to have more diverse sources for growth and would like to see more growth in higher- paying sectors like finance,” said DeFreitas of Hofstra.

But the wage picture is more complex than that, said Patel. She noted that average annual local job openings for some health care positions show strong demand at both ends of the wage spectrum. For example, the state projects that in the 10-year period ending in 2022, there would be an average of 610 annual job openings on Long Island for home health aides, and 960 for practitioners such as doctors, physician assistants, nurses and physical therapists, she said.

“They’re also hiring for higher-paying, higher-education jobs,” she said.

And health care helps to provide job security for many workers, unlike for those who work in slower-growing sectors.

Christina Kamme, 35, is a physical therapist by training, one of the fastest-growing jobs on Long Island. She helped launch Northwell Health’s Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation Services facility in Massapequa 3 1⁄2 years ago and is a supervisor of rehabilitation services. As an alternative to a hospital, the center provides postoperative care for patients in need of services such as joint replacement therapy. The office employs 12.

“It’s a great opportunity,” she said. “And with the baby boomers and the population aging, it’s job security as well.”

Jennifer Lillibridge Brendel, 38, an ultrasound technologist, also a fast-growing occupation, heads the ultrasound division at Northwell’s Imaging at Great South Bay in Islip and believes her field provides job security, too.

“I don’t feel that anything is going to happen to ultrasound,” she said. “There is so much expanding.”

Health care seems positioned to continue its strong arc of growth. Of the 35 occupations projected to grow the fastest on Long Island in the 10-year span ending in 2020, nearly half — or 16 — are in health care, the state Labor Department predicts.

“It’s going to continue to be a strong job gainer for the foreseeable future,” Patel said.

The top five fastest-growing health-care jobs on Long Island, their projected percentage increases between 2010 and 2020 and employment totals in 2020.

Personal-care aides: 53 percent 18,720

Physical-therapist aides 48 percent 1,020

Home-health aides 47 percent 19,320

Athletic Trainers 39 percent 180

Audiologists 37 percent 260

Source: New York State Labor Department

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