Valley Hi Nursing Home having trouble keeping, attracting employees, administrator says

The McHenry County Board will consider resolutions with the hope of attracting new staff members

Valley Hi Nursing Home in Woodstock is dealing with staffing issues similar to many other sectors of the economy, Administrator Tom Annarella told a McHenry County Board committee Thursday.

Annarella appeared before the county’s finance and audit committee to present plans he said he hopes will allow Valley Hi to add and retain staff members and deal with financial losses the county-run facility has been incurring. He said staffing issues are preventing him from admitting new residents.

“We do not have enough staff to raise the census any higher than they are,” Annarella said. “We are turning people away at the door.”

Valley Hi has 70 residents, and Annarella said he expects it will stay at that number for a while because the resources aren’t there to add more. The population of 70 residents is a decline of 40% from pre-pandemic levels, he said.

Annarella’s plans call for making several staffing changes, which a county analysis shows will save Valley Hi $8,500 a year. Among the changes include adding an infection preventionist, realigning responsibilities in some currently unfilled positions and adding a full-time baker.

Valley Hi’s assistant nursing director currently handles duties as an infection preventionist, but Annarella’s plan calls for hiring a new person to specifically handle those duties.

In January, Valley Hi was fined $16,250 by the state for mishandling a December 2020 COVID-19 outbreak at the facility. In a report by the Illinois Department of Public Health, the assistant nursing director and infection preventionist, who was not named, said Valley Hi kept people who contracted COVID-19 with roommates who had tested negative for the virus, even after the county informed the individual this was not the correct guidance.

The second part of Annarella’s plan calls for increasing pay for staff members – particularly nurses – and adding bonuses for staff members who take on extra hours. The county’s analysis said it’s not clear how much this would cost the county.

Low pay, especially compared with other jobs in health care, is a big reason it is hard to retain employees and find new ones, Annarella said.

“I’m losing staff,” he said. “I lost five day-shift staff [members] in a week to the hospital.”

Valley Hi also is coping with significant losses this year. The facility brought in $2 million less than expected through June, Annarella said.

“This will be the first time in 10 years we take a pretty nasty hit,” he said.

The county has been examining the possibility of adding a memory care unit at Valley Hi and expects to complete a study by the end of 2021. A previous study in 2018 found the facility had the financial capacity to add the new unit, but it’s not clear how the staffing issues and revenue losses Valley Hi is currently dealing with would affect that possibility.

In August, Annarella told the Northwest Herald that an ongoing study also is examining the feasibility of creating the new unit in light of how the pandemic has affected budgets.

County Board member Kelli Wegener, D-Crystal Lake, asked Annarella if he thinks his proposals will help solve the staffing issues. Annarella said he isn’t sure exactly how this will help Valley Hi in the long term, adding that the problems Valley Hi faces with staffing exist across the nursing home industry.

“My focus right now is to build a staff,” he said. “This will restructure us to be able to move forward quickly.

“When you look at the supply-and-demand issue, there’s just not enough supply. When you look at demand for [certified nurse aides] and nurses, it’s through the roof.”

Problems with supply and demand also explain why Valley Hi is hiring a baker. Annarella said supply chain issues with bread have led Valley Hi to begin making its own bread to ensure it has enough.

Annarella said he isn’t sure how long the changes to his staff and their wages will last because pay is low at nursing homes across the country and so many people are leaving the industry.

“I see this being permanent until another significant change happens in the landscape of long-term care,” he said.

Annarella’s proposals to make changes to Valley Hi’s staffing and pay structures will go before the County Board on Oct. 19.