By Randi Pierce
With a unanimous decision Tuesday, the Upper San Juan Health Service District Board of Directors approved more than $1 million in COVID retention pay for current Pagosa Springs Medical Center (PSMC) employees.
The move comes as the medical center is facing what many employers are: a shortage of workers.
As part of her report to the board, PSMC CEO Dr. Rhonda Webb explained PSMC had at that time 18 or 19 open positions posted, adding that, in Colorado, more than 2,000 nursing positions are posted.
If PSMC is unable to hire more staff, she noted, it may have to look at cutting services such as walk-in urgent care on Saturdays in July.
The resolution approved by the board presents a variety of reasons for PSMC’s “challenge of hiring and retaining existing staff.” Those reasons include:
• Other employers are hiring staff away with bonus pay. For example, the resolution outlines, PSMC has lost nurses to Mercy Regional Medical Center, where nursing staff was offered a $15,000 bonus, with $7,500 payable at the start of work and the other $7,500 upon completion of two years of service.
• Other employers have increased wages higher than PSMC pays.
The resolution notes as an example a fast food restaurant where the starting wage is now $14 per hour.
It notes that PSMC’s starting wage was $12.32 per hour but has been raised to $14.
• “There are many employers in southwest Colorado who are unable to achieve full staffing due to people who remain out of the market due to the pandemic…,” the resolution states, providing links to news articles reporting restaurants limiting days and hours of operation due to limited staffing.
• There is a nationwide nursing shortage, with the resolution again providing links to press coverage of the shortage.
• “It is difficult to attract staff who need to find housing when Pagosa Springs lacks an inventory of economical housing,” according to the resolution.
The resolution further notes that some of PSMC’s current openings require highly specialized skills, “making it more important than ever for PSMC to retain its staff.”
In presenting the proposal to the board, PSMC Chief Administrative Officer Ann Bruzzese noted the importance of retaining current staff.
“What’s really important to us administrators here, and I’m sure it’s important to you, is that we keep the excellent staff that we have,” she said. “And right now there is a very difficult time everywhere in terms of hiring.”
Bruzzese likened the staffing issues facing health care to the issues facing restaurants, drawing attention to the fact that some restaurants are having to close more days to a lack of staffing and PSMC is facing the potential of cutting Saturday walk-in visits.
“I can’t think of a time since I’ve been here that we’ve had such key positions that are open and such a volume of key positions,” she added.
She discussed the fact that nurses are being hired away with hiring bonuses and that PSMC may look at “more modest” hiring bonuses in the future to help attract the people it needs.
But, she relayed to the board, PSMC doesn’t want to look more into hiring bonuses without first taking care of its existing employees.
The hiring bonuses proposed, which was recommended “wholeheartedly” by the Finance Committee, she explained, is 7.5 percent of each employee’s annual base compensation, capped at a maximum of $7,500 per employee.
The resolution explains, “the proposed retention pay (including payroll taxes and employer contribution to retirement) totals approximately $1,040,000, of which 61% is payable from federal CARES Act stimulus funds and 39% is payable from PSMC’s operational funds (which would have the overall result of reducing PSMC’s operational days of cash by 4 days).”
As of June 1, the resolution outlines, PSMC had $3,394,545 of federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act stimulus funds remaining that, “under current regulations/rules, must be used by end of day on June 30, 2021, or returned to the federal government if not expended by that date.”
Bruzzese outlined for the board that PSMC’s auditors indicated the COVID retention bonus is an appropriate use of the funds because the issues are a direct result of COVID.
Board secretary/treasurer Mark Zeigler told the board the Finance Committee spoke about the proposal “at length” and again noted Mercy’s hiring bonus.
Bruzzese indicated that while PSMC is unable to match Mercy’s bonus, the retention bonus would be a good showing.
Board member Jason Cox suggested the retention pay is important for the team and added that he loved the approach.
It was further suggested that while PSMC may still lose employees, the risk was worth it and PSMC would show employees they are appreciated.
“I think it’s a no-brainer,” Cox said.
Following a question from board member Dr. Jim Pruitt, Chief Operating Officer/Chief Nursing Officer Kathee Douglas explained in the past hiring bonuses were offered for nursing and lab positions, but did not exceed $5,000.
Pruitt also questioned what the staff thinks of everyone receiving the same bonus without longevity factored in.
Douglas indicated the message is that everyone helps, with Webb adding that staff was aware of the proposal, but she had received no feedback.
Douglas added the staff wants to know something is being done to attract help.
Webb further reiterated that it would be a onetime bonus, not an ongoing pay raise, and every member of the team is equally important.
Bruzzese added that no managers had brought forward complaints, and Chief of Staff Dr. Ralph Battels added there were no complaints among the medical staff, whom he noted were glad PSMC is proactively doing something.
With no further discussion, the board unanimously approved the bonuses, which are slated to go out this month.