ALBANY – Workers who cared for residents of nursing homes and homes for the developmentally disabled during the COVID-19 pandemic are warning that their ranks are dwindling rapidly, and they're pressing New York State to mount a major recruiting and retention campaign before a second wave of the virus hits.
Advocates testified at state legislative hearings in August and last week that facilities were struggling to attract and retain workers who provide critical therapeutic and emotional support to residents -- and who are being lured away by better wages and opportunity for advancement in the fast-food industry.
"Prior to COVID, our system was at a tipping point with low wages and hard work," Kathy Bunce, co-chairwoman of the Developmental Disabilities Alliance of Western New York, testified in a recent legislative hearing.
Now, "families are worried, they are frustrated, and they are losing hope," Bunce testified.
Nursing homes are calling for an aggressive recruitment and retention program to address the loss of staff, most of whom are Black and brown women and men working for low wages.
Nursing homes and homes for the developmentally disabled house people who are among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Also, at the height of the pandemic, staffs were sapped when workers became ill or had to stay home to care for relatives, or quit for jobs that paid more and posed less of a risk of contracting the virus.
Cuomo announced an online "portal" where retired health care workers from New York and out of state could submit their credentials and availability to work in New York during the crisis.
"The state budget must look at long-term care as an investment, and not as an expense," said Stephen Hanse, president and CEO of the New York State Health Facilities Association, which represents skilled nursing providers.
"There has to be a population of men and women who want to come into long-term care," Hanse said. "What we’ve seen is people leaving long-term care during the pandemic."
Officials in the state Health Department, which regulates nursing homes, and the state Office for People With Developmental Disabilities expressed support for recruitment of more direct-care workers who deal closely with residents in providing medications and emotional support.
Denise DeCarlo, spokeswoman for the state developmental disabilities office, said the agency "continually takes steps to recruit direct care staff, to enhance their wages, and to retain qualified staff by creating a rewarding and competitive professional career path."
DeCarlo noted that agency staff "was impacted by COVID and adjustments were made to ensure appropriate staffing levels were continually maintained."
Jeffrey Hammond, spokesman for the state health department, said, "we provided unprecedented support to facilities during this unprecedented pandemic."
Hammond said, "we also reached out to all of the registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and certified nursing assistants to ask if they were interested in nursing home placements, and about 3,500 were identified as such to make it easier for nursing homes to connect with them."
Cuomo said the online portal attracted applications from more than 97,000 retired health care professionals willing to work in hospitals and nursing homes in New York.
But health department said in interviews that only about 15,000 health care workers who submitted applications through the portal were hired by hospitals, nursing homes and other care facilities, or volunteered to work in them.
Home operators said the portal attracted hospital workers but not enough nursing home workers.
"The problem with the portal was the state tried to recruit people for hospitals then tried to flip it" to attract nursing home employees, said Jim Clyne, president of Leading Age NY, a trade organization that represents more than 200 nursing homes.
"It was difficult to try to get them to come to nursing homes," Clyne said.
Harvey Weisenberg, a former Democratic state assemblyman from Long Beach and the father of a child who lives in a home for the developmentally disabled, said employees are "overworked and underpaid."
He said "at least 90% of the people I know working as direct-care givers" are people of color.
"The care-givers are surrogate parents," Weisenberg said. "Your heart breaks."
State legislators are preparing a report they plan to use to push legislation to bolster funding and wages at nursing homes and homes for the developmentally disabled.
"We have to make sure there is a pathway for our direct-care workers to have a livable career; that is what we want so they have the longevity and don’t have to work multiple jobs so they can take care of what’s most important," said State Sen. David Carlucci, chairman of the Developmental Disabilities Committee.
Sen. Shelley Mayer (D-Yonkers) said direct-care workers have been ignored in Albany for years, and during the pandemic "they have taken a real hit."
Mayer continued, "I don’t think they have gotten enough attention or the accolades that they deserve during this period, either financially, emotionally or in any other way."