Thousands of job vacancies challenge Alabama hospitals

Published: Apr. 14, 2022 at 12:30 PM CDT
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DOTHAN, Ala. (WTVY) - Seeing “now hiring” signs plastered outside of businesses is nothing new these days and one profession that saves lives is experiencing the same need for employees.

“There is not a hospital in the state where if there is a qualified applicant that that applicant cannot get a job doing almost anything they want to do,” Dr. Don Williamson, President of the Alabama Hospital Association, said. “Whether it’s a nurse, whether it’s a respiratory therapist, whether it’s a physical therapist, whether it’s you know, working in the cafeteria, food service, working in any job in that hospital, there is an availability.”

Right now, across Alabama there are thousands of hospital vacancies.

“We have a major shortage in healthcare workers now,” Dr. Williamson said.

The Alabama Hospital Association tells News 4 that right now their major effort is to work on the workforce.

“We are seriously understaffed in nursing and it is much worse than what it was before the pandemic,” Dr. Williamson said.

He said the workforce went down by about 25 percent during the pandemic nationwide.

“This is the most important thing frankly that we’re going to have to deal with in our state over the next several years,” Dr. Williamson said.

The estimate is that it will be 2025 before we get back to approaching pre-COVID levels when it comes to staffing.

“COVID is not a rate limiting factor,” Dr. Williamson said. “If you talk to hospital administrators you’re going to find that many of them still, their emergency departments are holding patients because they simply do not have the staff on the floor to rotate patients in as quickly as they normally would.”

A critical issue that Dr. Williamson said was a pre-pandemic problem and it’s now slowing down the entire emergency department.

“People waiting in the ED, they get care in the ED, but that slows down care of other people coming into the ED, it slows down people moving from the ED to the regular floors,” Dr. Williamson said.

Several factors are pushing this shortage, like the pandemic restricting students from getting required clinical hours and the industry seeing a mass exodus when COVID hit, especially in retirements.

“A lot of people who were nearing the end of their career who may not have intended to retire immediately saw COVID and said, ‘You know, I just don’t want to deal with this, wearing masks, putting myself at risk, putting my family at risk,’” Dr. Williamson said.

The competition for nurses in non-clinical roles and workers turning to travel nursing also attribute to these vacancies, which are hindering the financial impact.

“If we can’t keep and retain our own employees we end up using contract employees and contract employees are substantially more expensive,” Dr. Williamson said. “We have hospitals that are spending multiple million dollars a month, which they’re not receiving reimbursement for contract staff.”

Hospitals don’t just need nurses, they are hiring across the board.

“The shortage is from everything from nurses to the people who clean the rooms, to people who deliver trays,” Dr. Williamson said.

Typically, Southeast Health Medical Center sees about 80 vacancies, but right now they have over 200 nursing positions available.

“That’s actually higher than we’ve seen in the last three years,” Melissa Owens, chief nursing officer at Southeast Health, said.

Owens said they are looking better, but are still stretched.

“We’re just going to do what we need to do to get the job done,” Owens said. “There are many times we talk about entry level positions in nursing, but we’ve also got entry level positions in environmental services, nutrition food services. When we don’t have the help available to us we’ll have nursing staff helping clean rooms, we’ll have nursing staff helping deliver trays to patients and meals and we’ve done that because obviously we’re a team,” Owens said. “We sink or swim together, and we’re going to do what we need to do to make sure the patient gets an excellent experience the best we can.”

And the effects of burnout related to the pandemic linger.

”That is still very apparent to the nursing staff here at the organization, but we’re working though it,” Owens said.

Dr. Williamson said filling these vacancies isn’t going to happen overnight. But the association is working on hospital partnerships with two year schools and outreach to high school students.

“We are in a very very critical and precarious situation and so we’re focusing right now on ways to increase the number of people who go into healthcare,” Dr. Williamson said.

All to strengthen healthcare facilities in Alabama.

“By filling these jobs we increase our ability as hospitals to take care of more patients, more quickly,” Dr. Williamson said.

Another factor impacting the industry is a COVID-19 vaccine requirement. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services mandated the requirement in late 2021 in order to receive some funding. If hospitals didn’t agree to the requirement, Medicare funding would have been pulled.

Click here to view healthcare jobs available in Alabama.

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