In the three months following Hurricane Katrina last year, East Jefferson General Hospital in Metairie, La., became employee Bridgette Williams' temporary home. Williams, part of the environmental services staff, volunteered for the hospital's disaster team, where she worked with other employees to maintain the hospital's nine floors. Sleeping on a mattress in an office during the day and working at night, Williams cleaned patient rooms, removed trash, mopped floors and maintained the restrooms. She and her co-workers lined up for showers, ate a few hot meals and whatever else was available -- Spam, Jell-O, tuna fish, nachos, cereal -- and expected to stay only a few days. Instead, she lived there until last November and visited her three sons at their grandmother's house in Lutcher, La., a town 45 minutes away, on weekends.
"We all did the best we could," Williams said of the disaster team. "It's the idea of being needed -- helping somebody (who) couldn't help themselves. ... I wouldn't mind a bit to do it again."
While there are others like Williams who stayed after the storm, the exodus of New Orleans residents took a toll on the region's healthcare workforce. A report from the Louisiana State Board of Nursing said there were 6,939 active registered nurses licensed in the parishes of Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines and St. Bernard in June, a decrease of 26.5% from the 9,442 active RNs licensed in that area in January 2005.
Though licensed, these nurses might no longer live in the area. A report from the Louisiana Health Works Commission showed there are 969 nursing vacancies including 496 at hospitals.
At East Jefferson, which now has 443 staffed beds, turnover in the environmental services staff was more than 40% in the past year, while food services turnover was nearly 70%. Accounting for rehires, the hospital's environmental services staff has 87 employees today compared with 100 last year, and the food services department has 95 employees, compared with 99 a year ago. The nursing staff turned over 20.5%. Janice Kishner, the hospital's chief operating officer and nurse executive, said more than 250 nurses left.
The depletion in nurses and staff have caused providers and associations to develop creative solutions, such as providing food and shelter, to help remaining employees and attract new hires. One source of help has been the Care Fund, a charitable organization that provided financial support to hospital employees in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi from September 2005 until July.
Rosemary Blackmon, an Alabama Hospital Association and Care Fund spokeswoman, said the project was a joint effort of the American Hospital Association and three state hospital associations. To date, Blackmon said the fund has yet to disperse about $100,000 remaining of the $3.17 million that has been collected in the past year.
As employees rebuild their lives, the region's hospitals and nursing homes continue to face the challenge of maintaining their staffs. "The No. 1 concern is: `Where are we going to get the manpower?' " Kishner said. "As more providers open, we're all competing for a scarce resource. It may force us to close beds, quite frankly. That is the drastic bottom line, (and) it is counterintuitive in a place that is trying to remain open."
To attract employees, East Jefferson has increased wages for its workers. Kishner said newly graduated nurses now earn $22.50 per hour, up 15.4% from $19.50 per hour before the storm, while starting nursing assistants earn an hourly wage of $9.50, up 46.2% from $6.50 before Katrina. Also, this summer, Kishner signed an agreement with the Global Scholarship Alliance, a provider of scholarships and U.S. hospital employment for registered nurses. East Jefferson works with the Loyola University New Orleans School of Nursing on this project, and expects to have about 75 nurses from Canada, the Philippines and the U.K. within four to six months, Kishner said.
The hospital also started a certified nursing assistant program this year. The program works with the Jefferson Parish Workforce Connection and includes 40 hours of clinical training and 56 hours of classroom training. Even with the program, staffing will continue to be an issue for awhile.
"If ever there was a time not to leave, it's now," Kishner said.