Westmoreland health care providers, employees combat staffing shortages from pandemic

The local health care industry had its challenges before a pandemic swept around the world two years ago.

As summer 2022 approaches, human resources directors and department managers are finding it even more difficult to find the people who can provide basic services.

It’s especially tough for small facilities such as the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, where it’s increasingly difficult to entice enough people to work and cover staff vacations. The Greensburg-based congregation provides a variety of education, health care and social services programs.

“How do you explain to your residents that you’re only going to get showered once a week instead of twice a week?” said Kathy Carulli, director of health care services for the Sisters of Charity nursing department. “We’re not like McDonald’s or Burger King.”

The organization has been trying to emphasize retention through building staff morale, positive reinforcement and “little bonuses,” said Carulli of North Huntingdon.

“Recruiting has been rough since covid. There was a nursing shortage before then, but when covid hit, people were leaving the nursing profession in general, and we just don’t know where everybody went.”

According to Becky Bostick, assistant dietary manager for Sisters of Charity, employees are allowed one week of vacation.

“We don’t have people to cover vacations,” said Bostick of Greensburg. “It gets a little hectic some days, but we’ve managed through it.”

Excela Health, the largest employer in Westmoreland County, is facing similar issues as jobs have become more plentiful than people, such that those searching now have a greater selection than ever before, according to Heidi Henckel, Excela’s manager of talent acquisition.

“You can drive up and down (Route) 30, and everybody’s hiring,” Henckel said. “The competition has definitely expanded for us because it seems like a lot of organizations are hiring younger.”

According to Laurie English, senior vice president and chief human resources officer, Excela currently is hiring approximately 90 to 100 people per month, but staffing has remained “very fluid.”

“Clearly, we are no different from any other employer … when it comes to facing the pressures of the labor market,” English said. “We can hire 50 individuals but have 40 leave in the same time frame due to retirement, leaves of absence, outside employment opportunities and other catalysts.”

No shows

Sister Mary McCauley, manager of housekeeping and laundry at Sisters of Charity, said sometimes people say they will come and then won’t show up to work.

Carulli said she believes the “vast” number of job opportunities and types available to people affects their commitment, especially younger individuals.

“Unfortunately, that means for us … a lack of work ethic because they feel that, ‘Well, if I don’t like my job here, I can just quit here and go there tomorrow,’ ” Carulli said.

In the past, Carulli said, there was a greater push from parents for their kids to stick with commitments, especially jobs.

“The work ethic is just not what it used to be,” Carulli said. “The world is their oyster right now — they can get a job anywhere.”

A 2021 study by Mercer examining the changing health care labor markets over the next five to 10 years found the pace of retirement among primary care physicians will increase over the next five years.

“Currently, about 12% of family medicine, pediatric and obstetrics and gynecology physicians are 65 years of age or older and considered ‘retirement eligible,’ ” the study said. “By 2026, that number will grow to 21% with more than 32,000 physicians moving into retirement age.”

Other gaps in employment are created when registered nurses leave for agency work and internal employees transfer to open positions within Excela, English said.

“Every sector of the economy is being impacted negatively by the current dynamics of the labor market,” English said. “As to our pay ranges, we strive to be market competitive.”

According to the Mercer study, by 2026, it is estimated nearly 23,000 primary care physicians will permanently leave the profession, which will leave a “vacuum of demand for primary care providers.”

The demand for nurses will grow by at least 5% over the next five years, as well, the study found, and, within that period, “more than 900,000 nurses will permanently leave the profession.”

“Coupled with retirements, employers will need to hire more than 1.1 million nurses by 2026,” the study said. “If current trends hold, 29 states will not be able to fill the demand for nursing talent.”

Pennsylvania is projected to have the largest nursing shortages in the United States over that time frame, according to the study.

Katelyn Printz, Excela’s director of human resources, said she believes all businesses are experiencing staffing shortages, and she agreed they can cause competition during the hiring process.

“I would say, historically, I think what drove the market was people’s pure interest (in) what they wanted to do from an employment standpoint … and I think now, the market has shifted a little bit that the price of jobs is driving the interest to certain markets now,” Printz said.

This switch has encouraged businesses to keep up with the recent call to raise starting salaries and provide more benefits to stay in the market for new hires, Printz said.

“Unfortunately, I think all the local companies in Westmoreland County, we’re kind of competing against each other from a price standpoint,” Printz said. “It is a struggle for everybody, and I think it’s gonna continue to be a struggle.”

Megan Swift is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 724-850-2810, mswift@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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