Pennsylvania has lost 30,000 nursing home workers since start of pandemic

A Pennsylvania Health Care Association survey last year found a majority of nursing facilities are restricting admissions and waiting lists are growing.

Updated: April 21, 2022 - 7:48pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

Jobs in nursing and residential care facilities fell dramatically during the pandemic and have yet to recover. Due to economic factors and long-term aging trends in Pennsylvania, bouncing back won’t be easy.

About 202,000 workers were in long-term care facilities in Pennsylvania in March 2020 before the pandemic hit, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since then, the numbers have fallen to 172,300 as of February. The worker loss may have finally ended, as preliminary figures for March show 172,700 workers.

Yet the recovery remains a long way off.

Nor is Pennsylvania the only state with a worker shortage in nursing and retirement homes.

“With a rapidly aging population (namely the baby boom generation), we are facing some very real challenges ahead,” said Mark C. White, an associate extension professor at the University of Missouri, who wrote a policy brief on nursing and residential care employment trends in Missouri.

Doctors’ offices, hospitals, and social assistance-related jobs have generally rebounded, if not recovered their prepandemic numbers. But jobs that care facilities rely on, like nursing assistants and home health aides, continue to go unfilled. Those jobs pay less than other nursing positions, and it seems workers have looked for other jobs.

“For lower-wage occupations like home health aides or orderlies, the strong labor market is a challenge as those workers may be able to find more amenable hours, higher pay, and/or less stressful work in other similar-paying industries,” White said.

The shortage of those jobs is having an effect on those who need care. A Pennsylvania Health Care Association survey last year found a majority of nursing facilities are restricting admissions and waiting lists are growing.

As Pennsylvania’s population ages, the problem will worsen. Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale issued a 2019 report warning of the state’s “senior population explosion,” noting the 90,000 already in 700 nursing homes. Low pay, lack of career advancement, and confusing licensing and credentialing standards were cited as barriers to retaining and attracting workers.

“Given the dire need to recruit and retain staff to provide direct care, Pennsylvania must work quickly to create and implement a comprehensive healthcare workforce plan,” DePasquale wrote.