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Labor shortages close Kansas nursing homes


An alarming shortage of caregivers at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities is finally beginning to ease in some parts of the country. But in other regions, it's still critical. For example, in Kansas, over half of the state's nursing homes are experiencing a worker shortage, more than twice the national average. Rose Conlon of member station KMUW and the Kansas News Service reports.

ROSE CONLON, BYLINE: It was never exactly easy for Tolu Kadiri to keep the five Kansas senior living facilities she operates fully staffed, but it didn't used to be this hard.

TOLU KADIRI: The trouble is not so much hiring people - when I talk to other operators. The trouble is retaining people. It's been like a revolving door.

CONLON: And it's not just a nurse shortage. It's also a lack of certified nursing assistants, which are among the most common nursing home staff.

KADIRI: Health care has always had shortages. But even more so since COVID, a lot of the nurse aides are finding that they can go to agency and get paid more.

CONLON: Reliance on staffing agencies exploded during the pandemic as an already-dire nurse shortage worsened. Now, Kansas nursing homes want lawmakers to further regulate the agencies that they say are price gouging. Dana Weaver of LeadingAge Kansas, which represents nonprofit nursing homes, says the crunch has forced 35 long-term care facilities in the state to close or downsize since 2020, and more could follow.

DANA WEAVER: And the only reason that they have been able to sustain it, at least for the agency costs, is because there's been federal aid coming in because of the pandemic. But once that completely goes away, we will see a lot more closures.

CONLON: The reason it's so critical in Kansas is because of the state's demographics - a growing elderly population and a dwindling number of young people to care for them. By 2036, the number of Kansans 65 and older is projected to grow by more than 40%. Administrators worry that could drive agency staff rates even higher. But Rebecca Givan, a professor at Rutgers University, says nursing homes could reduce their reliance on agencies by trying harder to retain their own workers.

REBECCA GIVAN: There's an irony because the way to do that is to pay them more. And often these facilities don't want to pay them more, but then they're actually paying multiple times that to the agencies.

CONLON: However, workers say agencies make a demanding and low-paid line of work more bearable. For example, CNAs typically earn a median yearly income of $30,000 and often work multiple jobs to make ends meet. One of those workers is Katelin O'Herron, a single mom in Lansing who quit her staff job in a hospital ICU during the pandemic.

KATELIN O'HERRON: I started hearing people talk about agency staff. And they're like, yeah, there is this agency aide, and she's making $25. And I was like, are you serious?

CONLON: Now O'Herron travels to nursing homes across the region through an agency.

O'HERRON: So it's hectic, and there are some days where I don't eat. I don't get a break.

CONLON: That's not so different from her staff job, where she only made $15 an hour. But the higher agency pay makes it worthwhile. It also gives her a sense of control in a workplace that can be physically and emotionally draining.

O'HERRON: So if I had, you know, a really bad shift, I can say to myself, like, OK, well, I'm not going to pick up a shift there for, you know, a week or so. Like, I need to give myself a break.

CONLON: A break, she says, from the burnout that's driving many health care workers out of the field, including people like Jennifer Terrien, a registered nurse in Kansas City who left long-term care last year after decades in the field. She says the current shortage is a symptom of the industry's longstanding prioritization of profits over workers and residents.

JENNIFER TERRIEN: Sometimes you are so short-staffed, it really kind of leaves you feeling like you've endured some type of moral injury because you can't give each patient the care and attention they deserve.

CONLON: A dire situation in Kansas and a microcosm of a problem that's playing out in nursing homes across the country. For NPR News, I'm Rose Conlon in Wichita. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rose Conlon