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Jasinski hears from care facility: Help wanted

jasinski, benedictine, steele county times
Tony Schmit, a unit manager at Benedictine Living Community in Owatonna, tells Sen. John Jasinski about the frustration of trying to compete for employees to care for the residents, yet only offering what he calls “a standard wage.” Schmit, an RN, has been at the facility for nearly six years. Staff photo by Kay Fate
Kay Fate, Staff Writer

Sen. John Jasinski said he wasn’t sure why he’d been asked to visit Benedictine Living Community in Owatonna – but he had a pretty good idea.

“I know wages and staffing, that’s a concern, for sure,” said the Republican from Faribault, whose District 19 includes the northern half of Steele County.

And while Jasinski quickly pointed out he doesn’t do much work on health and human services issues at the Capitol, he certainly has a working knowledge of short- and long-term care facilities like the one in Owatonna.

“A year ago, I was in a large snowmobile accident, and I spent three weeks in a facility just like this in Plymouth,” he told staff and residents. “I saw the issue back then – when they’re short-staffed – and what that does to (the quality and level of care) to not have people there.”

Perhaps most importantly, Jasinski told the group, “I understand the importance of bringing those wages up to attract people. You need them. You can’t just not do your job or fill those shifts.”

Exactly right, said Tony Schmit, an RN who’s been a unit manager at Benedictine for most of the six years he’s worked there.

“It’s hard to incentivize people to come work for a standard wage,” he told Jasinski. “They can go work for (skilled nursing staffing) agencies and actually come back here and make a higher wage, because they work for an agency. It’s hard to get them to stick around when they can do the same thing for more money.”

Care facilities typically use those staffing agencies as a last resort for any number of reasons: additional fees are associated with the service; residents need stability and familiar faces; and staff who regularly provide care will be more confident about what patients and co-workers need.

Staff like Wanda DeLeon, who was introduced to Jasinski as “one of the best caregivers in southern Minnesota.”

She’s worked at Benedictine in Owatonna for seven years but has been a certified nursing assistant for 37 years.

“Sometimes, I’m the only one on the wing,” DeLeon said of the staffing shortage. “Do you know what it’s like to take care of 16 residents by yourself?”

“I do not,” Jasinski replied, “but I’ve been in a bed waiting for someone (to help), so I understand the concerns.”

“It’s a tough job,” DeLeon said. “I love my job, I love the residents, but it’s very difficult. More money would help to keep staff, maybe.”

Executive Director Lisa Kern said she’d like to clone DeLeon, “so if it’s tough for Wanda, there’s nobody in the state that could do the job.”

The facility has four wings, two for rehabilitation and short-term care, and two for skilled nursing and long-term care. It has room for 80 patients, with 32 beds in short-term, 48 in long-term – and a significant waiting list.

Jennifer Helgeson, the admissions coordinator, said she had nearly 50 referrals the week before – and could take five. The referrals come from as far away as Wisconsin, and all over the state of Minnesota.

“We try to keep them as local as possible,” she told Jasinski. “We prioritize Steele County residents” to lessen the strain on both the patient and the family.

Helgeson also tries to keep “a balance of payer sources,” meaning insurance or Medicare, since there’s not a large difference in the reimbursement rates paid to the facility.

“We know we need more beds,” said Anne Draeger, a retired nurse and president of Benedictine’s board of directors, “but when you can’t staff the beds you have, it’s hard for good organizations to say, ‘yeah, let’s add on.’ We have to solve the staffing problem before they’ll add on – and they need to add on.”

Kern said she needs 25 CNAs and 10 licensed practical or registered nurses daily “just for floor staff and care.”

The day of Jasinski’s visit, eight of those were from a temp agency – by 10:30 a.m.

“What we rely on is working together and flexibility,” Kern said. “Times three.”

To build staff, she said, the facility has hired non-certified CNAs and trained them, paying for their school. They’ve worked with local colleges and high schools, had people come in and observe and shadow – “anything we can to support people going into this field.”

Michael Shimpach, of Owatonna, introduced himself as “the honorary mayor” of the facility. He’s lived there longer than anyone else and sees the struggles firsthand.

“You can tell everybody wants to do better – they just have their hands tied,” he said. “We are way too wealthy of a country to have that happen.”

Shimpach said he’s “taken the pulse of the other residents,” and the biggest concern is about the inconsistency in staffing.

“It’s like every time you go to the doctor, it’s a different doctor.”

Kern said her budget is set “with my input, but I don’t have any choice. It would be great if we could pay our expenses, manage to pay our employees well, and end up at zero, but the last year and a half, it’s impossible.”

Federal and state funding provide only the basics, and she’s had no increase in income “in many, many years, and I have all the money trees planted in the back yard that I can.”

Her budget for food for the past six months was $118,000. She’s spent $152,000, thanks to inflation.

“That’s $34,000 I’m trying to come up with from somewhere else,” Kern told Jasinski, “and there isn’t somewhere else.”

Miscellaneous maintenance costs also add up quickly. The facility has spent nearly $25,000 in the past couple of months for repairs to its commercial water heater, a “wander-guard” system to protect residents, and a water pump computer.

“I cringe when I see a service van out here,” she said.

Shimpach said no one, including legislators, should be surprised.

“We’ve known this was coming,” he said of the so-called Silver Tsunami as Baby Boomers aged.

“Besides just the money – what’s the plan? It’s not going to get better; it’s going to get worse. There is no plan.”

Chris Yearling, of Owatonna, has been at Benedictine Living Community in Owatonna for a year.

“I’m only 59,” he said. “For the life of me, I can’t understand it. The amount of burden that the people here take off the state of Minnesota by taking care of the residents. It seems to me everything that affects us, like wages, staffing, snow removal, all those little things trickle right down to the residents.

“We’re a burden to the state, yet they don’t give these people enough resources to take care of us. Not very comforting,” he said. “Not very comforting at all.”

Jasinski said Sens. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, and Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, are “getting a lot of good things done this year that we’ll get across the finish line, so hopefully we’ll see some wage increases and things like that.”

That’s the number one goal, Kern said.

“We need a wage more appropriate to the task at hand,” she said. “They are caring for humans. We need society to value what we do here every day.”

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