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Pandemic-related healthcare job recovery has been slow, particularly in long-term care and, within long-term care, skilled nursing, according to a study published Friday in the JAMA Health Forum.

“Long-term care workers warrant attention given their persistently high and increasing exit rates,” the authors wrote. “Despite an apparent overall recovery, skilled nursing facilities have experienced continual declines in employment levels since the start of the pandemic.”

For the study, “long-term care” was defined as skilled nursing, assisted living, memory care and home health, co-author Bianca K. Frogner, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Family Medicine at University of Washington, told the McKnight’s Business Daily. She also directs the Center for Health Workforce Studies at the university. 

“Long-term care facilities are having an incredibly hard time with worker shortages, and our data supports that,” co-author Janette Dill, Ph.D, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota, told the McKnight’s Business Daily.

The cross-sectional study of 125,717 healthcare workers found that long-term care workers and physicians saw the greatest turnover throughout the pandemic. Approximately 15% of the sample worked in long-term care.

Frogner said that it is worth noting, however, that turnover has been an issue for a while.The patterns in this study mirror findings from a previous study from earlier in the pandemic, “which reported that 1 in 5 skilled nursing facilities had staffing shortages, with a high demand for nursing assistants and nurses,” according to the JAMA article.

The key to job recovery, Frogner said, is to “draw these people back into healthcare, back into long-term care, in particular,” noting the hospitals often win the battle for workers against long-term care employers because they can offer higher wages.

“During better economic times, long-term care is often really competing with other healthcare sectors,” she said, adding that she worries that as the economy returns to a semblance of normal, “these people will find jobs in other sectors, and we will not fill the jobs we so desperately need filled in long-term care.” Workers also are attracted to jobs in retail and food service, Frogner said.

She said she hopes this study helps spur some conversations about job recovery, retaining workers in long-term care, and also how to bring back some of the workforce that left during the pandemic. 

Dill said that some people are starting to come back into the long-term care workforce, but not at the particularly elevated levels of people that have dropped out of the workforce. 

“Clearly, there’s a recovery after the pandemic, but we’re still not back to levels of employment in long-term care that we had before 2019,” Dill said.