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(BP FB) Colin Jordison and Connor Jones (Medford FB).JPG

Blooming Prairie’s Colin Jordison (2) lines up at cornerback and prepares to cover Medford receiver Connor Jones (17). (Stephen McDaniel/southernminn.com)

The new Highway 14 between Owatonna and Dodge Center, making the highway a four-lane roadway straight through Mankato to Rochester, is near completion. An opening celebration will be held at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 9. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota Department of Transportation)

Tory Thompson, project manager for the Hwy. 14 expansion project between Owatonna and Dodge Center, has been commuting daily the dangerous stretch of roadway for a number of years. She said she has personally seen the hazards the two-lane portion presents and is happy to see a major corridor become significantly safer. (Annie Granlund/southernminn.com)

As driver shortage continues, Owatonna Bus Company to host open house
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Businesses throughout the country have struggled to find adequate staff. The Owatonna Bus Company is no exception.

Just before the start of the school year, John Benjamin with the National School Transportation Association said the bus driver shortage is impacting bus companies throughout the nation. Locally, the bus company has been looking to fill positions in Medford and Owatonna with the needs only increasing.

The lack of drivers has ultimately led the Owatonna Bus Co. to host an open house Thursday and Friday this week.

“We have a good time here at the bus company,” said Katy Kreutter, co-owner of the company. “Once people get started, they love it. We all are like a little family over here.”

Because there’s not a full-time position, the drivers have the luxury of having an incredibly flexible schedule. Many drivers are parents, farmers, or retired persons looking for a fun job to keep them occupied and put some cash in their pocket.

“I never thought this was something I’d be doing,” said dus driver Sara Harkema. “I was going to school for a human services degree, and they told me they could work around my school schedule, which was nice.”

Eight years later, Harkema is still a bus driver and enjoys the work, especially as a mother of two younger children. She can drive and work with her kids in tow when needed.

“I like the flexibility and seeing the happiness of the kids and being able to be a bright part of their day makes the hardships of [being a bus driver] worth it,” Harkema said.

Along with providing a great working environment, Kreutter said the Owatonna Bus Co. is also very involved in the learning aspects for prospective drivers.

All bus drivers are required to gain their CDL, while minivan drivers only need a standard license. Kreutter said they do the testing on-site, so people do not have to worry about getting tested through the state. She also said that they have resources available to help people every step of the way, from studying to testing to getting on the road.

“We always make sure that our drivers are comfortable before we send them out on their own,” Kreutter said.

Harkema said that she had to retake the written exam a couple of times before she passed when she was starting.

“They never gave up on me,” Harkema said. “They encouraged me to try again, and when I passed, we celebrated together.”

According to Kreutter, they are currently looking for five people to join their team.

“With everything that’s happening in the world and many unknowns, we usually have a few substitute drivers on stand-by,” Kreutter said. “We’re wanting to build up the pot, so to speak.”

Kreuter also stated that they have openings for all positions, including big and small buses, minivans and aids who assist on routes for the small buses. All candidates are required to pass a background check and a DOT physical, but all can come by the open house to ask questions and gather more information to see if being a bus driver would be a good fit for them.

“I’d like to ask everyone to join us for the open house and encourage people to come by and ask questions, see the building and the other drivers,” Kreutter said.

Harkema would encourage the public to come by the open house and try being a bus driver.

“You’d be surprised by how fun and enjoyable this job is,” Harkema exclaimed. “It’s not as scary as you’d think [to drive the big bus], and getting to know the kids and seeing their smiles and hearing their laughter is so worth it.”

She went on to say that she has been able to develop a special bond with many of the students who ride on her routes, and she relishes the fact that she’s able to get to know them, brighten their days with a smile or a high five.

The open house will start on Thursday from 4 to 6 p.m., and Friday from 9 to 11 a.m.

Long-term care stretched thin amid historic labor shortage
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Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES carson.hughes@apgsomn.com 

Benedictine Living Community CEO Teresa Hildebrant (left) talks with resident Lois Schwem. Like many long term care facilities, Benedictine is strained by workforce shortages. (Carson Hughes/southernminn.com)

A short-staffed workplace is nothing new for nursing homes, assisted living and other long term care providers — labor shortages are an issue that’s burdened the industry for years. But the seismic shift in the labor force brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a historic exodus from long-term care positions.

According to a workforce survey by LeadingAge Minnesota, more than 20% of caregiving positions in the state are currently vacant. The industry is stretched thin by more than 23,000 critical caregiving positions going unfilled.

Without adequate staff, many nursing and assisted living facilities have been forced to turn new clients away. Three Links Care Center, a nursing home in Northfield, filled 87 of its 92 beds in 2019. This year, occupancy fell between 70-80 beds, but not from a lack of referrals.

Laura Lutgens, Three Links Director of Nursing, said they’ve received enough calls from prospective clients to reach maximum capacity, but the home doesn’t have enough staff to provide quality care to a full building.

“I’m getting enough referrals where I could fill the beds, but it wouldn’t be a pleasant environment,” said Lutgens. “It would be really hard for the staff and I don’t want them to burn out.”

Peter Momanyi, executive director for Kaplan Woods Care Homes in Owatonna, said that during COVID-19 open positions dipped as low as 40% and they, too, had to turn away potential residents. 

"It was difficult to turn people away," Momanyi said. "But we can only care for so many people with the little staff we had. It was frustrating for us and the families because then someone had to stay home to care for their loved one."

A real problem

Three Links isn’t alone. The latest data from LeadingAge found nearly 70% of care centers are limiting the number of residents they serve, up from 40% of care facilities just two months prior.

Those most in need of care are threatened the most by the labor shortage. Many of the potential residents Three Links turns away have additional needs like dementia that require more assistance from staff than the home can provide. Since nursing homes all across the state and the country lack manpower, many residents with higher health care needs are forced to stick with their current provider or reach out to care providers outside of their communities.

It’s an issue that affects the general population of long-term care residents as well. Residents in assisted living that need higher support can’t find a nearby nursing home to take them in and vice versa.

“I can’t discharge someone who is really appropriate for assisted living or home health, because assisted living and home health doesn’t have enough staff,” said Lutgens. “So everyone is sort of stuck in place and it’s not good for care. It’s not a good outcome for them.”

Labor shortages have taken their toll on the entire health care industry. In an October editorial, Ridgeview Medical CEO Mike Phelps warned that staffing shortages along with hospital bed and statewide supply shortages will likely lead to longer wait times.

“Ridgeview has not been immune to these issues, and our staff is working much more and much longer hours to care for the community,” said Phelps. “Due to these compounding factors, you will likely experience longer wait times in our emergency rooms and urgent care locations. We may be forced to prioritize sicker patients ahead of others or ask that you reschedule or delay an elective procedure.”

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES carson.hughes@apgsomn.com 

Benedictine staff member Brooke Juell mans the desk. Adequate staffing is necessary for long-term care providers to meet full capacity, but amid caretaker shortages many facilities are leaving spaces unfilled. (Carson Hughes/southernminn.com)

The crisis in caregiving led Gov. Tim Walz to announce plans to order active members of the Minnesota National Guard to alleviate staffing shortages at care facilities. The move aims to relieve caregiving staff and make room for hospitals to discharge patients into transitional care centers. Walz said more than 400 Minnesota hospitals were waiting for beds to open up.

Teresa Hildebrandt, CEO of Benedictine Living Community in St. Peter, said that, between the pandemic, labor shortages in other industries and unemployment benefits, there was “a perfect storm” of events that pushed caregivers out of the industry.

“I think COVID scared people away at the beginning of the outbreak. A lot of people elected to leave health care. We had staff that were retirement age,” said Hildebrandt. “We had staff that got hired away by other health care systems that needed more staff. The unemployment benefits for some made it easier to stay home and quit employment.”

Since the pandemic first struck, some staff members came back to the assisted living facility, but others left the workforce entirely or took jobs in other industries.

Momanyi said he believes a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of state and federal promotion for this type of employment is why nearly 25% of his available positions at Kaplan Woods Care Homes are available. 

"Before the pandemic we had maybe 10% of positions open, it was difficult at times, but manageable," Momanyi said. "There's been a massive economic downturn and in my opinion, policies at the state and federal level weren't doing any favors to people working in this industry or wanting to enter it."

Worker outreach

For Momanyi, employment is heading in an upwards direction and he's optimistic employment for his facility will get back to what it looked like prior to the pandemic.

"Right now I have less open positions than during the height of the pandemic," Momanyi said. "We're seeing a desire for people to go back to work and I look forward to that, and to be able to take on more residents to alleviate the families who've been struggling to find care for their loved ones."

Benedictine Living dove headfirst into changing up their recruitment process to reach more candidates. In years prior, the assisted living facility advertised for positions on Facebook, but they’ve since expanded to posting on Indeed, Twitter and even Tik Tok.

“One week, we might have six or seven new hires that come through several sites and places that were advertising. Then, for some positions, we can go months without applications,“ said Hildebrandt. “We’re using various forms of media and social media staff referrals to get staff hired. Indeed might be hot for us one week and then the next week we get nothing.”

Many care providers have responded by implementing hiring bonuses and higher wage rates, but offsetting those costs isn’t as simple as charging more for services. Under state law, the daily rate Medicare and Medicaid certified nursing homes can charge is based on DHS assigned values assessing a resident’s medical condition and the level of care they will be receiving.The DHS then reimburses long term care facilities based on care related costs up to a limit.

“The state sets our rates, so any raises we give above what we’re doing now we have to fund those raises until the state reimburses us, which is a 21 month delay,” said Hildebrandt. “It’s not so easy for long term care providers to give everyone an increase.”

Long term care facilities are also competing for workers with other industries experiencing labor shortages. Care providers are also taking a financial hit from the limited capacity.

The state Legislature has allocated $250 million for frontline worker pay bonuses, but lawmakers still remain deadlocked on how to distribute it. The Frontline Worker Pay Group was supposed to reach an agreement on how to disburse the payments in September, but in October state Democrats and Republicans released separate plans — unable to come to a compromise.

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES carson.hughes@apgsomn.com 

Tammie Nelson takes inventory of medicine at Benedictine Living Community. (Carson Hughes/southernminn.com)

The proposal by Republican lawmakers focuses payments of up to $1,200 on long term care and hospice workers, nurses, emergency responders and corrections officers. Eligible applicants must have worked at least 1,200 hours between March 1, 2020 and Dec. 31, 2020.

Democrats sought to distribute smaller individual payments to a wider pool of workers. Under the DFL proposal, approximately $375 would be distributed to eligible workers in long term and home care, health care (excluding physicians), emergency responders, corrections, public health, social services, regulatory sectors, courts, child care, schools, food service, retail, shelters, hotels, building services, transit and transportation, airport services (excluding airlines), manufacturing and vocational rehabilitation.

Applicants would be required to have worked a minimum of 120 hours between March 15, 2020 and June 30, 2021.

Toys for Tots volunteers

In this December 2016 file photo, then Owatonna eighth-graders Ashlie Tesch, left, and Kayla Eschenbrenner help unload a semi-trailer filled with Steele County Toys for Tots donations. The collection of new, unwrapped toys begins this month. (File photo/southernminn.com)