High housing costs preventing some workers from taking healthcare jobs

Hospitals’ struggles to fill job vacancies in a tight labor market have been well-documented.

On March 1, the American Hospital Association described workforce challenges facing hospitals as a national emergency.

The issue has even gone mainstream, with data from the CVS Health-Harris Poll National Health Project showing 80 percent of Americans are concerned about healthcare’s workforce shortages.

Amid workforce shortages, many hospitals and health systems are paying more to retain and recruit workers, whether it be through compensation or benefits.

Part of hospitals’ struggles come from workers leaving their jobs at hospitals for various reasons. Some have left because of emotional exhaustion, while others have taken a travel or agency nurse role or retired early.

But there is another factor contributing to the shortages: housing costs.

Some nurses living in RVs

In November, St. Luke’s McCall (Idaho) Medical Center COO and Chief Nursing Officer Amber Green, MSN, RN, told Beckers four people turned down a job for a building service manager position because they could not find affordable housing.

Other hospital leaders have described similar situations.

Erin Pfaeffle, director of community health and engagement at St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center in Ketchum, Idaho, said in November Beckers that travel nurses lived in RVs in the hospital’s parking lots, also because they could not find affordable housing.

And in February, fox 4 reported that hospital systems in southwest Florida said the lack of affordable housing is hindering their ability to plug staff shortages.

“We are finding talent elsewhere that wants to move here, but they cannot afford to do so,” Todd Lyon, administrative director of human resources for Naples-based NCH Healthcare System, told county commissioners at the time, the TV station reported.

At Oak Bluffs, Mass.-based Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, offers were made to potential employees in January, and 19 candidates declined them because of housing costs, hospital CEO Denise Schepici told The Martha’s Vineyard Times.

“We are at a crisis,” she told the newspaper “The hospital is the largest employer on the Island. We touch the lives of everyone. My vision and goal is to bring the best we can bring to the island so islanders don’t have to leave the island for basic services. Well, with those services come people who need to perform them — highly trained professionals, doctors and technicians and housekeepers and all the things that make our hospital perform. When you have workers who make a median salary of $80,000 per year — and that’s the median — it’s still higher than the area median salary of $60,000 per year — who could afford a $1.3 million median house price? even find one, and the prices just continue to go up.”

Building housing for workers

Some hospitals and health systems are taking on the housing issue directly.

The University of Vermont Health Network is investing $2.8 million to help finance housing in South Burlington that can be used for its workers.

UVM Health Network officials told Beckers on March 10 the health system will take a 10-year master lease on 61 new one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments set to be built, then make those units available first to its workers, potentially at a subsidy for eligible employees.

The health system, which will not manage the property, aims to provide housing for permanent workers and their families or transitional housing for employees who move to the area and look for a house or apartment.

“UVM Health Network is working to recruit and retain a talented workforce amid a severe nationwide staffing shortage. It’s not news to anyone that lack of housing that is affordable for our workforce has been a consistent barrier to success, especially in Chittenden County,” Al Gobeille, executive vice president for operations at UVM Health Network, said in a statement. “We’re listening to our employees and to the people who we try to recruit when they say that housing is a barrier for them and believe that this innovative partnership will have a real benefit for our employees, patients and community.”

Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, part of Boston-based Mass General Brigham, is also making efforts to address the housing issue, including purchasing 26 acres in 2021 with the goal of building a combination of housing for older Americans with skilled nursing care available as well as housing for employees, according to The Martha’s Vineyard Times. The hospital has also advertised seeking year-round rentals for workers.

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