Recruiting and retaining employees is a challenge across all of senior living and post-acute care. One operator based in Colorado, where a 2.8% unemployment rate makes competition for high-quality workers especially great, is taking a multifaceted approach to address workforce issues.

Denver-based not-for-profit Christian Living Communities has rolled out several programs that the operator says already have resulted in a 5% increase in retention in the first quarter of 2018 compared with the turnover rate in 2017. The company owns, operates and manages nine senior living communities in Colorado, has two more communities under construction in Colorado and Missouri, and also offers home care services.

Cost of living and pay adjustments

One of the new changes saw annual cost of living increases rise from 2.5 to 3% for all employees.

“We looked hard at our budgets to see what we could cut to provide substantial wage increases,” Jayne Keller, vice president of operations for Cappella Living Solutions, a service of CLC, told McKnight’s Senior Living.

In January, the company also budgeted $820,000 in additional pay raises for 66% of its 640 employees. The adjustments were made to keep CLC positions competitive after a review of each job, from CEO to CNA, in the Denver marketplace.

“We want the many skilled members of our team to be able to stay with us and thrive in the process. We want to be the best of the best,” Keller said.

The company also lowered health insurance costs and deductibles for employees across the board, including offering a zero-cost plan.

Help with debt and other needs

Over approximately the past year, CLC also began offering both a student Debt Reduction Benefit and Critical Needs funds to support employees needing immediate assistance. The Student Debt Reduction Fund, begun in October 2016, aims to help team members reduce student debt from college loans, thereby increasing their monthly income.

“Big companies are often the ones who hit the news for helping their staff cover schooling costs,” Keller said. “You may not about hear us in the news, but we’re just as cool as Starbucks when it comes to helping our team achieve their educational goals.”

The Critical Needs Fund, begun around the beginning of the year, provides funding to overcome work barriers such as car repairs or housing. In the past six months, 10 team members have accessed this fund, primarily for transportation needs.

These funds are in additional to an employee scholarship program that has expanded over the past 25 years and awarded almost $23,000 to 16 employees to help them further their education this past year.

Navigation assistance

To help staff know how to access and use these and other resources. CLC also has begun offering all employees access to a “navigator” through a third-party company, Worklife Partnership. The navigators, trained human resources professionals, can help employees locate and obtain resources to help with rent, car, legal or childcare services needs and more.

“Our work-life navigators help staff create an ongoing action plan to break the downward snowball effect that can occur in the face of difficult financial and other life issues,” Keller said. “We’re working with individuals to help them understand how to navigate life well.”

The services are free, and employee participants remain anonymous. CLC oversees the program, but it is managed by Worklife to avoid any potential bias in awards and maintain anonymity for award recipients, according to the company.

More than 20 “customer” employees were served by CLC’s navigator program in the first quarter of 2018 alone.

CNA training

Just like at other operators, CLC found that one of its greatest staffing needs was certified nursing assistants. CLC partnered with the Community College of Aurora to offer grant-funded tuition to enable entry-level employees to obtain a CNA license.

The first CNA cohort class was held in June 2017. Seven individuals already have graduated from the program, CLC said, and three of them are now employed by CLC. A fourth class is scheduled for October.

Alternative schedule options

CLC said it has taken specific steps to provide high-impact work practices that are of little to no financial cost. In response to feedback from staff surveys, the company recently began offering alternative schedule options to all employees, including flexible start and stop times, compressed work weeks, job-sharing and remote work options.

“We encourage a balance between work and life so our team can be their best when they’re caring for our community,” Keller said.

CLC also increased the maximum number of earned paid time off hours each team member can cash out and expanded the number of payroll advances a team member can have. Through an established paid time off donation program, staff members also are able to donate part of their paid time off to coworkers in need.

CLC has been administering the staff surveys for 40 years, although they now are “spot surveys” that each focus on a specific subject and relate to time-sensitive, actionable items. (For instance, one survey asked “What is your most valued benefit?” and discovered that employees especially valued health insurance. A follow-up question asked “What specifically can administration do to improve it?” and discovered that employees wanted lower deductibles and premiums.)

Improving staff-resident relations

Following a pilot program that began in January 2016 at CLC’s Holly Creek Retirement Community and was deemed successful, special committees made up of residents and employees also were created this year throughout CLC’s communities in an effort to foster and capitalize on the power of resident/team member relationships.

“The Keeper’s Committee gives our residents a greater purpose — the chance to be involved in supporting those who help care for them,” Keller said. “They are part of the solution to problems that are raised — it takes a team.”

These “Keepers Committees” have both team members and residents who plan employee and department-specific events together. The goal of these groups is to cultivate positive team spirit, strengthen relationships and celebrate staff accomplishments such as marriage or work milestones.

“One of the key results of the Keeper’s Committee is a program for new staff to be welcomed and mentored by community members,” Keller said. “The year after we instituted the Keeper’s Committee, we cut our turnover in half.”

The committees expanded to all communities March through May this year.

Facilitating communication

Following in the footsteps of some hotel operators, CLC said it is the first senior living provider in the country to offer its staff an internal communications app called The Loop. The branded app provides on-the-go information about organization happenings as well as access to surveys and chat groups.

More than 60% of CLC employees do not have an office or a computer as they are cooking, cleaning and caring for residents or addressing community maintenance, according to the company.

“Communications is always difficult in the senior care setting because so many employees are not at desks or do not see one another,” Keller said. “We wanted to make sure we were providing the best, consistent care for our residents and helping our staff feel connected. So we were the first senior living community to develop a communications loop through Beekeeper.”

“It’s like a Twitter page for employees,” added CLC concierge Jude Wherley.

The app is desktop-, Android- and iPhone-friendly and allows staff to post and receive information of community-wide importance. Employees can message each other, share photos, celebrate colleagues’ birthdays and coordinate community and business events.

CLC is working to have almost all employees who do not work behind a desk using the app this year.

Keller and others at the company hope that the changes will continue to foster a culture in which employees feel valued and supported.