Hanford medical assistant Rossana Cobian, who usually serves in a medical office, volunteered to help in the hospital during the December 2020 COVID-19 surge. Image via Adventist Health
Written by Breanna Hardy
The health care staffing shortage is well-documented, but solutions remain elusive more than a year after wages skyrocketed to keep workers in the Central Valley.
Around The Clock Healthcare-West, a health care staffing agency based in Los Angeles, is working to help hospitals recover their workforce since the height of the pandemic.
John Mamboleo, president of ATC Healthcare-West, described the past year and a half as a rollercoaster. The pandemic, bringing an influx of patients to hospitals, made it difficult to hire more health care workers. ATC Healthcare-West specializes in assigning travel nurses.
Eventually nurses were only willing to work at very high compensation, with pay rates rising up to four times the previous levels.
Nurses in intensive care units and respiratory therapists were making as much as $7,000 per week in the Central Valley.
“So obviously the reason was because people didn’t want to go to a high-risk area and not be compensated for the risk,” Mamboleo said. “As much as they are health care workers and they are frontline workers, there was the compensation part of it, which was like risk and reward.”
Increasing rates made the industry compete for health care workers at a time they were in high demand.
Some health care staff saw too much risk and did not wish to return to work, but that changed when the vaccine came out, Mamboleo said. But by the time nurses were willing to come back to work because of decreased risk, hospitals were not as crowded and desperate for workers.
Now it’s been difficult to hire staff because pay is not as high.
“So now we are back to lower rates in some cases than what we had before, and it’s been very challenging to get people to go in,” Mamboleo said.
ATC Healthcare-West has worked with Community Regional Medical Centers, where there has been an increased demand in the labor and delivery unit. The agency has also seen a demand for contract workers at Saint Agnes Medical Center.
The rates are fairly competitive, but they have dropped drastically, he said.
“The uptick is still slow, but it’s better than what it was at the beginning of the year,” he said.
Bonuses have helped jumpstart the hiring process in some hospitals, too, he said. The agency offers referral bonuses for both staff who recommend a person to hire, and the person hired.
Demand for emergency rooms and medical-surgical units is not as high, and can mostly be met with staff who are already working in the hospital.
While the hospitals are facing staffing challenges, staffing agencies are also trying to stay agile to fill the market adequately. The agency is starting to look into filling nursing homes and working with rehabilitation centers. There’s also an opportunity to establish health care workers in facilities that are performing Covid testing and vaccinations.
“So we are always evolving or changing ourselves in a sense to adapt to what’s happening in the market,” he said. “If we don’t adapt, obviously we’ll suffer a lot of consequences, which is obviously negative revenue growth.”
Mamboleo has seen changes in health care staffing trends in prior recessions, but like a pendulum, it will swing back – but sometimes at an unpredictable pace, he said.
The pandemic wasn’t all to blame for the health care staffing problem, though. Even in 2013, the World Health Organization reported a shortfall of health care workers across the globe. California Health Care Foundation reported that the shortages exist across sizable urban and rural populations, and diverse populations are going underrepresented in the workforce. It reported that there are not enough health care workers to meet California’s growing and aging population.
The California Future Health Workforce Commission recommends to expand premedical post-baccalaureate programs to attract a more diverse workforce. It proposes to add 100 slots prioritized for minority students from designated areas with a health care shortage who are reapplying to medical school.
Proper education would also help backfill the older population of workers who chose to retire early. The production line skills training to the workforce is not there yet, Mamboleo said. But this is a long term solution.
“It’s very challenging – where do you get the people from?” Mamboleo said.