More Money Changes Nursing Home Attitudes In A Year

Certified nursing assistants Anni Torma, left, and Sam Clemens serve cookies and coffee to West Wind Village residents Marlos Bacon (sitting, left) and Lila Estenson on Friday, Jan. 22 in Morris, Minn. (Forum News Service photo by Brooke Kern)
Certified nursing assistants Anni Torma, left, and Sam Clemens serve cookies and coffee to West Wind Village residents Marlos Bacon (sitting, left) and Lila Estenson on Friday, Jan. 22 in Morris, Minn. (Forum News Service photo by Brooke Kern)

Cami Peterson-DeVries was intense when she pleaded with Minnesota lawmakers to find money so nursing homes could boost worker wages.

“They can go to the sugar beet plant down the road and get more money,” she told a state House committee.

Peterson-DeVries, who was RenVilla Health Center administrator in Renville, was joined on the witness stand by many others from rural nursing homes across the state, including Michael Syltie of Wind West Village in Morris. He said that his 50-person staff had 15 openings.

The testimony was Jan. 21, 2015.

It was not a good time for nursing homes, with nurses, nursing assistants and others who directly deal with residents peeling off to take better-paying and easier jobs at fast-food joints, retail businesses and elsewhere.

On Jan. 21, 2016, Peterson-DeVries was a much happier woman, as were nursing home workers throughout Minnesota.

“What a difference,” she exclaimed about life after state officials appropriated $138 million more for nursing homes. “Really. I don’t believe that we thought it could be done. When we sat there, it seemed like such a monstrous problem. The changes are so significant. There is a lot of benefit all the way across.”

Peterson-DeVries, who now oversees six nursing homes for Morris-based St. Francis Health Services including those in Morris and Renville, and workers said the added money means employees are more likely to stay and the facilities now can recruit new workers.

Reports from around Minnesota indicate that nursing home job openings have fallen dramatically while worker happiness has soared as many long-time employees say the raises are the largest they ever have seen.

“I am just glad that our Legislature finally saw the light,’ said Melody Nordby, a certified nursing assistant who dispenses medications at Luther Haven in Montevideo. “The elderly in Minnesota need to be taken care of.”

“I think it is moving in the right direction,” added Sonja Lemire, a licensed practical nurse at Parkview Care Center in Buffalo. “It is such a needed occupation.”

Raises began showing up on paychecks at some nursing homes months before the state money arrived. In other cases, raises are being negotiated or planned in coming months.

The new money helps rural nursing homes bring pay into competition not only with many businesses, but also with hospitals that lured away nursing home workers for years. It also helps rural Minnesota facilities compete with the Twin Cities and other metropolitan areas, Peterson-DeVries said.

“We are seeing wage increases and better compensation packages all across the state,” said Jodi Boyne of LeadingAge Minnesota, which represents nursing homes.

New pay levels vary, but in many cases, nursing assistants now get $15 an hour.

Peterson-DeVries said that some in her organization received 15 percent raises, and many got 13.5 percent. “Nursing assistants were given the highest percentage.”

Benefits changed for some workers, including those in the St. Francis organization. They had been offered a high-deductible health insurance plan before, but now full-time employees receive free and better health care insurance, Peterson-DeVries said.

Lemire said that even though the raise the Services Employees International Union negotiated in Buffalo does not kick in for a few more days, she notices a difference.

“It is helping us recruit right now,” she said, with some new hires already on staff.

LPNs and CNAs are happier, she said. “They are not as gripe-y about everything. … I think it will make a significant difference.”

The Buffalo facility gave its LPNs and CNAs a $2-an-hour raise. That means a starting CNA would get almost $15.

Workers at Aicota Health Care Center in Aitkin landed some of the biggest pay bumps. Every nursing-related worker received at least a 15 percent raise, with some getting a 25 percent boost. That puts the minimum wage in nearly every department at $15 an hour.

The Red Wing Care Center, meanwhile, boosted wages $2.45 an hour to $13 for certified nursing assistants. Licensed practical nurse pay rose to $21 an hour, a $3.87 raise, the SEIU reported.

In Montevideo, LPNs and CNAs generally received $4 an hour raises.

When Nordby started at Luther Haven 33 years ago, she earned $3.99 an hour and there was no need to advertise for aides because the pay was good enough that people wanted the jobs. Then advertising was needed to attract applicants, Nordby said, and eventually the facility turned to a company that provided pools of nurses and CNAs, but at a higher cost than regular employees.

Luther Haven has filled its day shift, Nordby said, and people are in the pipeline for other shifts, too. “They are hiring more all the time.”

While much of the talk has been on raising employee pay, the end result should improve resident care.

Besides residents seeing a happier staff, Peterson-DeVries said, they may enjoy more activities.

“The focus is on the quality of life,” she said, and some facilities will be able to add more activity positions with the new money.

When Luther Haven was shorthanded, Nordby said, residents “would complain about how long it would take to get (call) lights answered and get help.”

Instead of giving baths at certain times, she said, “we did baths whenever we had time.”

Now, however, things are changing as staffs grow back to where they should be.

“I think they notice it because things like their baths are more on a timely fashion,” Nordby said. “To the elderly, a routine is important to them.”