As with all things in senior living this year, the coronavirus influenced employee perceptions of their employers, and in turn, senior living organizations’ rankings in Fortune’s third annual lists of Best Workplaces for Aging Services, released Thursday by Fortune and Great Place to Work.

“The effect of engaged employees has magnified in the aging sector, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Jacquelyn Kung, DrPH, CEO of Activated Insights, the senior care data analytics company for Great Place to Work. “We have found that organizations that have maintained or increased employee engagement during this year’s challenges have been able to be more resilient, provide enhanced care and perform better.”

The Great Place to Work methodology is grounded in a “trust index survey” that has been taken by more than 100 million people worldwide and features 60 questions measuring five dimensions of employee engagement. To be certified as a Great Place to Work, operators must survey all of their employees using the trust index survey. Providers earn Great Place to Work certification if at least 70% employees surveyed confirm that an employer is a great place to work.

Once certified, operators automatically are included in Fortune’s ranking process. Fortune and Great Place to Work then take the employee certification data and run it through an algorithm that adjusts for factors such as company size and consistency of all employee experience. The adjusted scores of each operator are then ranked.

In 2020, as in 2019, Fortune recognized 20 large senior living and care organizations and 20 small to medium-sized organizations, plus 10 home health companies. In 2018, there was one 40-spot senior living and care list.

Positive reviews

Many ranked organizations shared the approaches to the pandemic that garnered positive reviews from employees.

Lori Elfus is director of human resources at Carlsbad, CA-based Continuing Life, which held the No. 19 spot on the inaugural list in 2018 and jumped from No. 16 in the 2019 rankings of large organizations to the No. 2 spot this year. She noted the company’s response to COVID-19. 

“The CCRCs immediately committed to no-layoffs, furloughs or reduced hours for employees, regardless of declining occupancy, so colleagues could come to work every day knowing their job was secure,” Elfus said. “To ease the challenges from initial panic shopping and school closures, we offered employees free meals, shopping for essential items like toilet paper, and a $200 weekly stipend for childcare assistance. These programs have continued to evolve, as information about COVID-19 evolves, to meet the needs of our colleagues.”

Warren Spieker, principal of Continuing Life, said that in the survey done in conjunction with the rankings, 95% of employees said they believed their workplace was “physically safe place” in spite of the fact that they took the survey in May when anxiety and uncertainty were heightened due to COVID-19. “We remain committed to continued safety and engagement for all residents and employees and appreciate the trust all these constituents have given us,” he said.

Deirdre MacCarvill, Ph.D., employee development manager at McMinnville, OR-based The Springs Living, No. 11 on the 2020 list of large organizations, noted that the company took precautions against COVID-19 even before required by state regulations.

“Protecting staff was our priority, as we knew we couldn’t protect our residents from the virus unless our team came first,” she said. On top of securing “abundant” personal protective equipment, MacCarvill said, The Spring Living created programs to support employees.

“First, we extended paid sick time so they could not worry about staying home if they displayed even mild symptoms,” MacCarvill said. Then came food-related programs — ‘Hero Meals’ that staff members could take home for their families after each shift, and mini-markets of food and household staples at cost to save workers trips to the grocery store.

“We pursued other innovative initiatives, such as participation in research studies for environmental testing in our communities, including an air testing study by the CDC and a surface testing study by the University of Oregon that detected the virus up to five days before anyone displayed symptoms, giving us a head start on containing the virus,” she added.

Patricia Sprigg, president and CEO of Chapel Hill, NC-based continuing care retirement community Carol Woods, which ranked No. 12 on the list of small and medium-sized organizations, up from No. 15 last year, said the company’s approach to the pandemic has been multifaceted.

“Our efforts include daily screening, securing enough PPE for all staff, dissemination of science-based information, testing, free lunches, an on campus grocery store, a hardship fund to help families whose spouse may have lost his/her job,” she said. There have been  no lay-offs or furloughs, and each month sees the delivery of a surprise, such as money, snacks or gift cards, to workers.

Carol Woods, Sprigg said, also established an infection prevention team that meets every day to update staff on research and best practices, and the community is working to implement an automated system that will assist in contact tracing. “We also offer COVID-19  testing on our campus,” she said.

As staff members try to offset resident isolation due to visitor restrictions, Sprigg said, they have a deepened sense of purpose.

“The pandemic has tested all of us but in the end, we feel we will be a stronger community and employer because of it,” she said.

Cathy Cooper, chief human resources officer, United Church Homes and Services, which ranked No. 17 on the small and medium-sized employers list, said the organization continues to be as diligent about pandemic-fighting practices while continuing to “embrace laughter, inspiration and purposeful living.”

“We increased the assistance available through our Employee Emergency Assistance Fund and provided campus treat days,” she said. “We value compassion, innovation, integrity, inclusion, all people, quality and value.”

Hard work

Ranked companies acknowledged the hard work of employees during the pandemic.

Roger Ellens, CEO, and Heather Pabisinksi, director of human resources at Palos Park, IL-based Peace Village, No. 3 on the list of small to medium-sized organizations in 2019 and 2020, said being on the Best Workplaces list held special meaning during the pandemic.

“Just being recognized is proof we have a dedicated team of amazing employees who come to work every day to give exceptional care to our residents and who know they are making a difference to our community,” they said. “This has been a trying year for all of us. In the face of insurmountable obstacles, Peace Village employees have come together to operate with high levels of safety and compassion — not only for our residents, but for their fellow employees.”

Winter Park, FL-based Holiday Retirement placed No. 5 on the 2020 list, moving up nine spots from the 2018 and 2019 rankings, when the company was No. 14.

“During such an uncertain time, what has remained constant for us is the commitment, hard work and dedication of our employees,” Holiday Retirement CEO Lilly Donohue said.

Kristy VanDerWiel, vice president of strategy and mission integration of Johnston, IA-based WesleyLife, No. 8 on the list of large employers, said, “Our nursing directors and executive directors have sacrificed their personal lives to ensure the residents, clients and team members are provided for as best as we possibly can. Our team members have shown up for residents, clients and their co-workers, have given up their time off, and have themselves experienced the virus and still they serve.”

Despite the difficult times, VanDerWiel said, “Leaders and team members have kept their sense of humor, found ways to celebrate and have continued ‘in spite of.’ ”

Other current events

Organizations also called out their responses to extreme weather and protests that began in the spring in the midst of the pandemic.

Amber Gustafson from Concord, CA-based Carlton Senior Living, No. 8 on the list of large organizations, said the company believes that “every human has the right to live safely. That includes carefully protecting both the physical safety of our employees, residents [and] their loved ones during COVID and a continuing commitment to providing a diverse, respectful and hate-free environment.”

Sprigg of Carol Woods said, “When the social injustices started coming to light, we invited open dialogue and safe places to vent feelings. As CEO, I wrote a letter to all staff as well as posting a letter on our website and on Facebook, stating what we stood for and publicly took a stand for civil rights.”

Carol Woods, she said, disseminated resources that staff could find helpful and also implemented an Inclusive Workplace Task Force to delve into current policies and practices.

VanDerWiel of WesleyLife pointed out that a rare weather phenomenon called a derecho affected almost 80% of the state in August.

“Many of our leaders and team members had damage to property or lost power for several days. This meant temporary accommodations, food that was lost because of the lack of electricity, and yet more strain on team members already challenged with the COVID virus,” she said. “Our organization supported many financial requests through our WesleyLife Bridge Fund which helps with small grants of cash to help with expenses.”

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