Pacific Retirement Services is one of more than 40 senior living organizations across the country that acted early to require COVID-19 vaccination for employees. We announced our first staff vaccine requirement in June and have been working with each of our 12 life plan communities to implement the new policy since then.
Initially, we had relied on incentives and our employees’ intrinsic desire to keep residents safe to drive up vaccination rates. But there is only so much an operator can do to encourage vaccine-hesitant employees to act independently. After a promising start, PRS communities began plateauing after 50% to 80% of employees were vaccinated (the rate varied by geographic region).
Once we announced a vaccine requirement for staff, our rates began increasing again. PRS now has near-universal levels of COVID-19 vaccination among staff, and we are far more confident navigating the recent wave of delta variant-driven infections than we would have been without our policy.
Most skilled nursing facilities will be required to implement a similar policy if the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services ties federal reimbursement to a facility’s staff vaccination rate as directed by President Biden, and many senior living communities will be affected by the planned requirement that employers with 100 or more workers mandate vaccination or weekly testing. So why wait? I would like to see all providers act immediately to keep our residents and long-term care employees safe.
To help those who are considering or currently rolling out a vaccine requirement for staff, here are some lessons from our rollout that may be useful:
Lesson 1: Be confident
Let’s face it: if you knew that a vaccine requirement wouldn’t threaten your staffing levels, you would have done it by now. The good news is that a vaccine requirement will probably cause less turnover than you expect. When given a firm choice between the jab or a job, most employees will choose the jab.
Your employees have many reasons to continue working for you. They enjoy seeing residents, they know their co-workers, and finding a new job is stressful, even scary. Those are all powerful reasons to stay.
With senior living and healthcare employers struggling to fill open positions, I understand that a vaccine mandate may feel like an additional hurdle in the recruitment race. But if PRS’ experience announcing a vaccine requirement is any guide, your worst fears won’t come to pass.
Lesson 2: Be compassionate
The majority of PRS’s 2,800 employees already had chosen to be vaccinated by the time we announced our policy, but whether for valid personal reasons or a belief that emergency use authorization was insufficient, around 30% of our workforce had chosen to pass on the vaccine.
It is essential to recognize that these employees are caring people who showed tremendous commitment to keeping residents safe during the pandemic. They aren’t declining the vaccine out of indifference to resident well-being; they are declining it for personal reasons.
Everyone has the right to make a personal choice. We choose where to work. We choose whether to be vaccinated. You can show compassion for employees making tough personal decisions while exercising your right to set workplace policy.
Lesson 3: Be firm and keep it real
If someone wants to work in a PRS community, then he or she has to accept our requirements. Those include a uniform, pre-employment drug screening, a background check and, yes, proof of full COVID-19 vaccination.
Because a COVID-19 vaccine requirement is no different than a uniform requirement, you should feel confident to communicate it just as firmly. You wouldn’t let an employee haggle with you for hours about the uniform. There’s no reason you should haggle over your vaccination requirement either.
And to show you are firm in your stance, you need to be real about the consequences. As our vaccine requirement deadline neared, we informed employees who planned to opt out that we would be posting their positions. This dose of reality encouraged some individuals to get vaccinated and stay.
Taking a firm stance goes hand-in-hand with Lesson 1. It shows your commitment to keeping all who enter your communities safe. And what higher priority is there for professionals at every level of your organization?
You have the power to limit this new wave of pandemic deaths by implementing a vaccine requirement for staff. This issue is not just about helping the older adults we serve. COVID-19 vaccination could save an employee’s life. So, although it may be unpleasant to interfere with an employee’s personal choice, the harm that could come to your unvaccinated workforce if you choose not to act is a far worse alternative.
Eric Sholty is president and CEO of nonprofit senior living and healthcare provider Pacific Retirement Services. He oversees its portfolio of 12 life plan communities and 25 affordable housing communities in six states.
The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living guest column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.