Metro Health-University of Michigan Health launched a new bonus program this month that pays up to thousands of dollars to new workers who start amid persistent staffing shortages in health care.
Under the program, endoscopy nurses, for example, earn a $1,500 sign-on bonus plus another $500 every six months for up to 18 months, or $3,000 total. The sign-on bonus for operating room registered nurses is higher and can add up to $5,000 over a year and a half.
Metro Health offers the sign-on bonuses for new employees across numerous positions, as well to retain existing staff. The bonuses range from $1,000 to $10,000 and include retention requirements from 90 days to 18 months.
The effort results from the COVID-19 pandemic that has created an even tougher environment for health systems to recruit and retain staff.
As well, West Michigan health systems are competing with for-profit, out-of-state health systems that are attempting to lure away talent by saying: “Come here, we’ll throw the most money at you,” said Jennifer Gonzalez, Metro Health’s chief human resources officer.
“We’re in a market like we’ve never seen before, and we’re accustomed to competing with other health systems in town for health care talent,” Gonzalez added. “None of us are typically competing with for-profit entities for talent. This is a new space for us to have to be in.”
Metro Health launched the bonus program as the present rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations — combined with a pent-up demand for elective care — pushes many hospitals statewide to capacity. That has further stressed doctors, nurses and other health care workers and worsened a severe staff shortage in an already tight labor market.
The Metro Health program represents one example of how hospitals, at least financially, have been responding to a staffing shortage that persists across economic sectors but which has hit health care particularly hard in the pandemic.
Part of the initiative’s goal is to attract more talent as Metro Health expands staffing levels to handle a heavier patient volume and to prevent burnout among caregivers and other professionals. The health system employs 3,000 people and presently has about 250 open full and part-time positions, both clinical and non-clinical.
“While our staff has been tremendous and shouldered a ton of additional hours and shifts, and they’re continuing to show up day after day, it would not be a sustainable model to extend that long term,” Gonzalez said. “We need to be able to staff with the right-sized team.”
‘Up their game’
Metro Health is not alone in using bonuses or added pay to keep and attract staff.
At Gaines Township-based Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, directors in June approved putting $1.8 million into an “employee appreciation bonus” to retain and reward staff.
Holland Hospital in July gave employees and new hires an extra $3 per hour on top of their regular pay. The incentive for full and part-time clinical and support staff sunsets at the end of September and was designed primarily as part of broader retention strategy, said Mark Pawlak, Holland Hospital’s senior vice president for human resources, quality, I.T. and hospital operations.
“Everyone who is looking for employees has had to up their game in attracting and retaining talent, whether you are fast food or you are health care,” Pawlak said.
The added pay that Holland Hospital provided for three months will total nearly $1 million and has “helped a bit in recruitment,” Pawlak said. Holland has 50 to 60 percent more open positions than is typical for the hospital, and it has seen “some movement on the number of applications we see in certain positions, and also the ability to attract new employees,” he said.
“We’ve managed to close the gap a little bit on open positions, (although) we’re still in a position that is very different in terms of what we have historically seen,” Pawlak said.
Michigan Health & Hospital Association CEO Brian Peters said that in his 32 years with the trade group, he has “never heard a consistent theme across our entire membership like I have on this staffing issue in the last several months.”
Staffing has become the top priority for hospitals across the state, from urban care centers to rural facilities in the Upper Peninsula, Peters said in a recent media briefing to urge people to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
“It’s a very significant challenge across the board at this point,” he said. “We are all concerned about that getting worse.”
The issue cuts across hospital operations, from doctors and nurses providing direct care to personnel in areas such as food service, housekeeping and “the things that are required to keep a hospital functional day to day,” Peters said.
The MHA has started collecting information from member hospitals to gauge the depth of the problem, Peters said.
The steady rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations through the summer has driven the stress and fatigue among health care workers even higher, leading some to retire early to move to another health care setting away from a hospital, Peters said. Staffing shortages and capacity issues are also magnified as people who delayed elective care or surgeries last year now opt to get a procedure done, he said.
“We know that our staffing is stressed to a level now that we have not seen previously. That’s really the concern that we have right now,” Peters said.
In Southeast Michigan, staffing shortages this month led Henry Ford Health System to temporarily close 120 of its 2,000 beds at five hospitals in the region. Beaumont Health temporarily closed 180 beds because of a lack of staffing and said it was “working aggressively to recruit new team members.”
Even with the rising number of hospitalizations, Peters said hospitals have the bed capacity to handle present caseloads: The problem is having enough staff.
“What we’ve learned is that the roadblock here to being able to provide service and have the capacity to care for people that come to the hospital is not necessarily the availability of a physical bed,” Peters said. “The issue is staffing. You can have all of the beds in the world, but if you don’t have an adequate number of nurses, physicians (and) other health care providers to staff those beds, that’s where you run into a problem.”
Keys to retaining talent
Metro Health has seen “some” early retirements from the pandemic, although an “equal amount” of previous retirees have sought to return to the workforce to help out, Gonzalez said. The health system has also experienced an increased interest in people wanting to work in health care to “be part of the solution,” she said.
In a national survey earlier this year by Ohio State University, two out of five nurses reported symptoms of depression, and more than half experienced anxiety. The study included nearly 800 members of the American Association of Critical Care Nurses. The results were published in the American Journal of Critical Care Nurses.
More than one in five respondents to McKinsey & Co.’s 2021 Future of Work in Nursing survey said they were interested in leaving their present positions.
Paying more compensation has been one part of Metro and Holland Hospital’s retention strategy. Workplace culture, leadership, recognizing staff and offering workers support when they’re going through a tough time has also been part of the broader strategy at both hospitals.
“If the workplace can be somewhere where even though the work is stressful, you feel like you are with people who are like-minded, who are unified, who are supporting each other — that can be a refuge,” Pawlak said. “Our goal has been to remain an employer that is a place where employees say, ‘This is part of me. I’m part of this family here and that helps me to get through this.’”