Facing COVID burnout and competitive market, how CT health care networks keep staffing levels up

Facing COVID burnout and competitive market, how CT health care networks keep staffing levels up

During the past two years, Connecticut health care professionals have worked on the front lines amid the worst public health crisis of the past century.

They remain in high demand, as highlighted by the health care sector’s steady employment levels in the state since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. But competition from other employers and a limited labor pool have complicated the hiring at hospitals and other health care facilities, which are simultaneously trying to bolster their employee retention and development to ensure they have enough workers for the long term.

“We’re challenged for talent because we’re all fishing in the same pond,” Melissa Turner, chief human resources officer of the Yale New Haven Health system, which includes Bridgeport, Greenwich and Yale New Haven hospitals, said in an interview. “There’s just more competition for talent in our market.”

Looking to hire

As it was before the pandemic, health care constitutes one of the largest sectors in Connecticut’s economy. About 270,000 people were working in health care and social assistance in Connecticut this February, down 2 percent from a total of 275,000 in February 2020, according to the state Department of Labor.

The state’s overall number of employed people in February 2022 totaled about 1.64 million, down 3 percent from February 2020.

Today, hospitals across the state are hiring for a range of clinical positions, such as nurses and medical technicians, and non-clinical jobs. But they are grappling with a tight worker supply in the wake of widespread retirements and resignations among health care workers in the past two years that are part of a “great resignation” affecting many industries.

“We continue to try to find creative ways to meet the needs of our patients and close our staffing gaps,” Turner said. “But the labor pool is considerably smaller than it had been several years ago. Frankly, it doesn’t seem to be growing exponentially anytime soon.”

At the same time, hospitals face robust competition for job seekers from other health care providers and employers in other sectors. As of March 25, U.S. job postings were up 58 percent from the “pre-pandemic baseline” on Indeed, one of the world’s largest job sites.

Despite those challenges, the headcount in the past two years has increased slightly for Yale New Haven Health. Its latest total of approximately 30,000 employees compares with about 28,500 at this point in 2020.

Nuvance Health — which includes Danbury, New Milford and Norwalk hospitals — has similarly kept its employee levels steady in recent years. It now operates with about 12,000 employees across Connecticut and New York.

“Although staffing is an ongoing challenge, our communities can rest assured knowing these internal staff development and external recruitment strategies have been working,” Norwalk Hospital President Peter Cordeau said in a new report.

“Nuvance Health filled a record number of roles during our last fiscal year, and we welcome about 85 new employees each week across the health system. This has resulted in continued, excellent care for our patients and communities.”

At Hartford HealthCare, which includes Hartford Hospital and St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, several hundred people have been hired in the past few months. Like Yale New Haven Health and Nuvance, it is still looking for many more recruits.

“The reality is it’s an extremely competitive marketplace,” John Rossi, Hartford HealthCare’s vice president for Fairfield and system operations, told Hearst Connecticut Media in December. “The supply is not matching demand.”

Health care providers’ ability to offer competitive wages varies significantly. In 2020, the most recent year for which full-year data is available, the annual average wage within the private sector totaled $42,710 for nursing and residential-care facilities, $73,992 for hospitals and $77,195 for ambulatory health care services, according to the state Department of Labor.

The statewide average amounted to $75,411.

“The more you raise the wage, the more likely you are to get more candidates. Compensation does matter to job-seekers,” AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist with Stamford-based Indeed, said in an interview.

“I think as some of the ‘scars’ of the pandemic fade, you may see in the longer run interest start to shift back toward health care. In the next year, I would say interest will probably shift toward higher-paying occupations in the profession.”

Demand for health care workers is unlikely to soon dissipate. Nationwide employment in health care occupations is projected to grow 16 percent from 2020 to 2030, “much faster than the average for all occupations,” with the addition of about 2.6 million new jobs, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

‘Growing our talent from within’

As they look for new hires, officials at the state’s largest health care systems said employee retention and development also remain top goals.

“We’ve really tried to focus in on our talent management and planning by creating programs to develop our employees,” Turner said. “We are really, more than ever, growing our talent from within.”

Among related initiatives, Yale New Haven Health announced Thursday a partnership with Fairfield University, Gateway Community College, Quinnipiac University and Southern Connecticut State University that aims to graduate at least 557 additional nurses during the next four years.

Yale New Haven Health is committing approximately $1.7 million during the next four years to provide scholarships and books to students who otherwise would not be able to attend school.

To boost retention, health care providers have enacted in the past couple of years a number of changes aimed at mitigating the grueling toll of working during the pandemic. Those measures include greater opportunities for remote working, an option that has been facilitated by the growing use of telemedicine.

“We are not in a traditional job market. The COVID-19 pandemic has influenced people’s decisions to leave the workforce, whether from burnout or early retirement,” Cordeau said. “The pandemic has also changed many people’s expectations about how, when and where they work.”

Health care systems have also sought to ease employees’ burden of juggling work and family commitments. Stamford Health, which includes Stamford Hospital, offers to-go dinners to all of its approximately 3,700 employees.

“At the end of a very long day, being able to pick up dinner, at a very reasonable price, to take home to their families means so much to our employees. They stop me all the time and tell me how much they appreciate it,” Stamford Health CEO and President Kathleen Silard said in an interview.

“We want to help create work-life balance and make sure that when you come to work we’ve created an environment where you feel valued and that your work is meaningful.”

pschott@stamfordadvocate.com; Twitter: @paulschott

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