Reap big rewards with recruitment project

Agency finds money isn’t only worthwhile goal

One of the downsides of a thriving economy is that it’s hard to recruit and keep professional and trained staff. Add to that problem the cyclical nature of health care, which occasionally has a nursing shortage nationwide, and individual home care agencies are left with quite a dilemma. How can they recruit and keep the best staff?

CareGivers of Southwestern PA in Greensburg, PA, has faced that problem in hiring and retaining both nurses and home care aides. "We, like everyone else, are extremely short of help," says Mary Jane Helfrich, RN, chief operating officer of the agency, which serves an area 30 miles east of Pittsburgh. "The problem started five years ago, and it has gone downhill consistently, so last year we decided to do something about it."

The agency made staff recruitment and retention a performance improvement project, following all of the usual steps. Here’s how it worked:

1. Identify the problem. It wasn’t difficult to see that the agency needed to improve its employee recruitment and retention process. Managers identified that as the main problem and then called an employee meeting to learn more about the smaller issues relating to it. Employees might have offered a few clues, but Helfrich and other managers had a better idea. They decided to track all staff present at the meeting as a group throughout coming months and years. "We decided to keep these people as a core group and track them over the years," Helfrich says. "We’d assess the pros and cons of their jobs."

During the meeting, the employees expressed satisfaction with the agency’s flexible hours, the office staff’s professionalism, the free CPR course, the free TB test, and the free mandatory education courses. "Some agencies make you get all of this on your own, so at the meeting they identified those as the things they liked about the agency," she says.

2. Find out what staff dislike about their jobs. Predictably, some staff desired a bigger paycheck, but that could not be changed, particularly because the agency relies solely on private-pay clients and does not receive Medicare, Helfrich says. "When I explained to them that we’re not a Medicare agency and we have to bill for our services, they were able to understand a little bit why we have to keep costs low," she explains. "The patient is paying out of pocket for these services, and we do pay a good salary, anyway."

The staff also said they wanted more agency socialization — events the entire staff could attend, along with their families. That was another difficult area for the agency to improve because the agency employs only about 50 staff. A big event, such as a Christmas party, would be difficult to hold at a time when all staff could attend because some employees work late shifts.

Employees asked for health insurance, which the agency could not provide because, although it’s a subsidiary of Westmoreland Health System in Greensburg, PA, it doesn’t receive hospital benefits.

3. Create solutions to areas of staff discontent. Managers brainstormed with the staff to find solutions to the areas they identified as problems. One solution involved the issue of increased staff socialization. Although the agency couldn’t hold its own Christmas party, managers could make sure employees were invited to a Christmas party held at the health system’s hospital. All employees and their families could attend the event.

Although it wouldn’t be feasible financially to give each employee a salary increase, managers decided they could offer bonuses based on the number of hours worked in a quarter. Any employee who worked 500 hours in a quarter would receive a $60 bonus, which would be paid twice a year, and the hours would be carried over from one quarter to the next for an accumulative effect.

Managers created another benefit for staff: free tickets to a local amusement park. Employees could visit the park whenever it was most convenient. One ticket, valued at $20, was given to each employee. Then, employees could buy additional tickets at $10 each so they could bring their families along.

4. Improve staff recruitment efforts. The agency advertises for employees in the local newspaper, placing classified ads every two weeks. "We also work with the local community college and vocational tech school, which offer classes for certified nursing assistants," Helfrich says, "and we work with the job improvement service here in the county. It’s an unemployment service from the state."

The county’s low unemployment rate has made those efforts challenging, particularly when the agency tries to hire certified nursing assistants (CNAs). "It used to be that people tended to go into health care, but now they go into retail markets and other industries," Helfrich explains. "To find CNAs, we try to target high school graduates who may not have the resources to go to college but still are caring individuals who are interested in helping people."

The agency also has participated in college job fairs and has even offered paid CNA train-ing, which cost $465 per person for an 80-hour home care aide course. Although it was not overly successful — of four people who started the course, only two completed it, and only one of those still works for the agency — it was a creative solution to the recruitment challenge.

"It’s becoming much more difficult to recruit employees or even to get them to answer your ads," she says.

5. Track current employees to see if improvements help retention rates. The agency will continue to follow the staff who attended the meeting last year for at least five years. Those include RNs, LPNs, and home care aides. A year has passed since the meeting and since changes were implemented, and the retention rate has been 75%, which is fairly good, Helfrich says.

"We’re very happy with 75% retention because they are good employees and work very hard for us," she explains. "Many work overtime, and they have a commitment to their patients and are very responsible people."

Mary Jane Helfrich, RN, Chief Operating Officer, CareGivers of Southwestern PA, 501 W. Otterman St., Suite D, Greensburg, PA 15601. Telephone: (724) 850-6950.