As coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) spreads, keeping a full staff will be one of the most pressing issues skilled nursing facilities and senior living communities will face, experts say. That’s because caregivers who come in contact with infected residents or patients are ordered to self-quarantine and are taken off the job, restricting the labor pool even as demand for care grows.

Add to this the widespread staffing shortages and high turnover that nursing facilities and other elder care operations nationwide already had been facing before the pandemic hit, and many are questioning the industry’s ability to weather this crisis.

“We can’t keep up,” Kristen Knapp, a spokeswoman for the Florida Health Care Association told the Miami Herald. “We have more seniors than we have caregivers, and that’s a challenge.”

To address this potential staffing shortage, some have been making a plea for the nation’s now temporarily out-of-work restaurant, hotel and retail workers to consider senior housing and nursing homes for employment.

“Given the breadth of career options in our field, ranging from healthcare to dining services, facilities management to finance, marketing and management, we know there are many opportunities for people laid off in sectors being hit hard by coronavirus to find opportunities,” said Susan Hildebrandt, vice president of workforce initiatives at LeadingAge. “Skills from fields like retail and hospitality, for instance, are readily transferable to dining services or sales.”

Last fall, the LeadingAge Center for Workforce Solutions debuted a “Recruitment Tools” that includes a section specific to the topic of reaching displaced workers. In addition to a fact sheet containing tips on where employers can find and how they can target displaced-worker prospects, the organization also provides interviews with employees of LeadingAge members who are new to aging services.

The question of whether an employer could train a new hire quickly to fill direct care roles that the industry so desperately needs to fill, depends, obviously, on the job requirements, Hildebrandt noted. A quick fill for a certified nursing aide job, for instance, may be challenging, given each state’s certification and training requirements. Other areas of aging services, however, such as dining services, are fairly accessible to newcomers.

“We’ve heard anecdotally that some of our communities are currently cross-training staff so that existing employees can take on different jobs,” she said. Other employers are hiring workers to do work that does not require a license, and in some areas, discussions about shortening training times for certain positions are taking place.

“While this unprecedented situation may cause the loss of thousands of jobs, we hope that older adult services can be an opportunity for those people who find themselves suddenly out of work,” Hildebrandt said.

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