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Olson hears care center concerns

ABOVE: Representative Bjorn Olson speaks to residents and staff at St. Luke's Lutheran Care Center in Blue Earth on Friday.

BLUE EARTH– On Friday, Representative Bjorn Olson met with some staff at St. Luke’s Lutheran Care Center in Blue Earth to hear concerns regarding staffing shortages.

Olson, a former teacher at Blue Earth Area Schools, was elected to represent District 22A in 2020 and was recently reelected this past fall and started his second term in January. His current committee assignments include Taxes, Transportation Finance and Policy and Veterans and Military Affairs Finance and Policy.

While Olson said there’s not currently a bill being discussed regarding senior care centers, it’s an ongoing conversation, one he voiced frustration with when speaking with Margaret Brandt, Administrator at St. Luke’s, on Friday.

“For at least the last three years, we’ve had discussions about nursing homes but nothing has happened,” said Olson.

One of the biggest issues discussed Friday was staffing shortages. Brandt said they have 120 staff members, 41 of which are over the age of 55. She said a lot have stayed past retirement age or even come back after retiring in order to help.

St. Luke’s isn’t alone in this as care facilities in Martin County and many other counties are also facing shortages.

In fact, according to statistics from The Long-Term Care Imperative, a partnership of Care Providers of Minnesota and LeadingAge Minnesota, there are more than 20,000, or 20 percent, caregiver positions open across Minnesota’s long-term care settings.

Olson asked whether they’re seeing the most shortages with licensed nurses or certified nursing assistants (CNA). Brandt said St. Luke’s was struggling gaining CNAs. Olson asked how old they can hire CNAs and Brandt said at 16 someone can get trained to start.

She then said they’re working with a class at Blue Earth Area Schools and through that this spring they’ll have nearly 20 students come in.

“Fairmont has the high school vocational program in their school district, which is a great thing if a student has the opportunity to get the licensing needed (while in high school),” Olson said.

Brandt said St. Luke’s also offers a CNA class, which allows them to pre-train staff, but she pointed out that it could easily be shut down by surveyors and then there wouldn’t be many options for people to easily get licensed.

She spoke more about how strict the training requirements are.

“The colleges, if I didn’t put a sock on right, I won’t pass. That won’t hurt a resident,” Brandt said.

She said now if they know someone is going to take their test, they’ll schedule two, knowing they won’t usually pass the first time around.

Brandt said another issue which has emerged, whose slang name she was unfamiliar with, is “ghosting.” She said some people simply stop showing up soon after they’ve started the job.

“People don’t return any calls or emails… they seem excited to start. Or people will apply and then never show up for interviews,” Brandt said.

Brandt, who is also a registered nurse and licensed social worker, shared she has been at St. Luke’s for 32 years.

“St. Luke’s is a good place. It has very good care,” she said.

She shared that her own mother is a resident there, too. St. Luke’s has an independent living wing and an assisted living wing as well as a dementia care wing, which Brandt said is always full. It used to offer adult day care Monday through Friday but hasn’t had that program running since the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

St. Luke’s is licensed for 64 residents but currently has 52. However, while they have room for more, they don’ have the staff to care for more.

“We turn people away because we can’t staff them,” said Dennis Madsen, Board Chair at St. Juke’s.

Brandt added that they give out about 20 referrals every day to people requiring about care.

Again, St. Luke’s is not alone in this. Another statistic from The Long-Term Care Imperative said that 11,000 Minnesota seniors were turned away from long-term care centers in just one month (Oct. 2022), most due to lack of staff. This problem will only increase as 50,000 Minnesotans will be turning 80 in the next five years.

Wages were also discussed on Friday.

As part of the CARES Act, which came into play after the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) was established. This provided businesses with funds to pay up to eight weeks of payroll costs including benefits.

However, in order to find workers to fill roles at places like hospitals and care facilities, many places had to offer high sign-on bonuses, incentives or wages.

“There’s a place to make some money right now but St. Luke’s can’t sustain in paying that kind of wage, but what do you do?” Brandt asked.

“It isn’t just us. It isn’t just St. Luke’s,” Madsen pointed out.

Right now The Long-Term Care Imperative estimates that the starting wage for caregivers is about $16 per hour. Olson pointed out that a high school student could get a job at McDonald’s, with a negotiable hourly wage of just below that doing far easier work.

However, he said that wages and staffing shortages is not something only nursing homes and assisted living facilities are facing, but that every sector of the economy is. He spoke about one of the most recent employment reports for the state of Minnesota.

“It showed that there were 640,000 working-aged Minnesotans who were not looking for work,” Olson said.

He added that 100,000 are in school full-time and another 50,000 are stay-at-home parents with children under the age of 5.

“Childcare is another huge issue in our economy, but that still leaves about 490,000 Minnesotans who are siting there,” Olson said.

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