An unprecedented global pandemic could leave its mark through 2022, according to senior living industry experts participating on an Argentum panel looking at senior living’s economic forecast for 2021.

Panelists reviewed trends in the industry’s three biggest cost drivers: workforce, food and utilities. 

According to Argentum’s 2021 Forecast Report, the economy was still 10.7 million jobs down from pre-coronavirus levels as of September, with full recovery unlikely until 2022. And although the total number of jobs in the senior living industry declined in 2020, the number of hours worked by employees is trending higher.

Workforce

The senior living industry is relatively insulated from some employment pressures, but it is not immune, said Kevin Oakley, director of seniors housing and healthcare investment banking for Lument. 

Beginning in March, the industry lost 63,500 jobs over six months — the longest streak of senior living job losses on record, according to Argentum. Although employment increased in September, it remained more than 6% below February’s pre-pandemic employment level. As a result, employment in the senior living industry declined 1.7% through August 2020, resulting in the first annual decline in senior living jobs since 1990. 

Within the senior living industry, continuing care retirement communities were hit the hardest. Also known as life plan communities, they lost jobs at a rate of 2.5%, whereas assisted living jobs declined 0.8% during the first eight months of 2020.

But the industry’s employment picture is rosier than the overall economy. The number of senior living jobs is projected to increase 3% in 2021, which would represent the strongest annual gain since 2015. The average hourly wages paid to senior living employees is projected to rise 2.5% this year.

But the average workweek of senior living industry employees jumped 2.1% — or 0.7 hours per week, from 32.7 hours in 2019 to 33.4 hours in 2020. This increase represents the longest average workweek on record for the industry employees.

The average workweek for assisted living employees rose 2.3% during the first eight months of 2020, to an average of 34 hours. CCRC employees saw their average workweeks increase 1.9%, to 33 hours, through August 2020. 

The longer workweek and increased wages signaled that job losses were concentrated in lower wage positions, Oakley said. The labor market is easing but remains competitive, providing an opportunity for the senior living industry, he added. 

“Now, with job losses and demand for people to get back into the workforce, there will be a robust pool again, leading to a faster filling of roles as demand goes forward,” Oakley said.

Communities looking to hire need to focus on safety, health and wellness, benefits and flexibility, and technology, he said.

“One thing the pandemic highlighted is everyone wants to be safe and healthy — that goes for residents and people living in the community, but especially employees,” Oakley said. “Not having wild outbreaks of COVID-19 is a selling point to recruiting and potential employees.”

Food

The pandemic had significant effects on the food industry, according to Dana Fillmore, healthcare customer marketing manager for Gordon Food Service. The abrupt change in global supply and demand led to changes in availability and pricing of food, as well as supplies needed to run a food services department, including disposable food containers and chemicals for cleaning.

An Association of Nutrition & Foodservice Professionals survey in October revealed that 87% of those in senior living experienced a food shortage in 2020, Fillmore said. The takeaway message, she added, is to be aware of supply chain issues and planning.

Key strategies include showing financial responsibility by staying close to menu planning, looking at plate costs (including purchasing, receiving, food preparing and serving), and prioritizing dining innovation.

“Food nutrition services is a significant cost center,” Fillmore said. “The highest cost typically is labor. If you are looking to make sustainable reductions in your budget, look at how you’re doing things, look at operational excellence.”

Utilities

The utilities and energy market fell to all-time lows in the midst of the pandemic, with business and factory closures, manufacturing cutting shifts and large office buildings empty due to employees working from home, according to Jamie Polend, an energy consultant for APPI Energy.

“The price of where natural gas is trading is the main critical driving factor of utility costs,” he said. 

As the industry shifts to a “new normal,” Polend anticipates that markets will return to pre-COVID pricing, if they haven’t already. It’s important for operators to work with groups to negotiate pricing to control costs and maintain budget certainty, he said.

The future

Certified directors of assisted living anticipate that the industry will see a steady increase in move-ins during the second half of 2021, according to an Argentum survey.

Safety and socialization are the factors most likely to influence move-ins in 2021, they said. Operators cited preventing social isolation and loneliness, hiring, and health quality and infection prevention and control as the top challenges for 2020 and 2021. Other challenges include costs of COVID-19 testing and personal protective equipment, gaining trust from the public to protect older adults, emotionally supporting employees and families, and staffing issues.

“There are a lot of known unknowns,” Fillmore said. “One big one is consumer trust in the industry and in the brand that they are coming into. That will play a large piece in how quickly we come back.”