LANCASTER — The Coos County Delegation on Wednesday approved $500,000 to allocate stipends from American Rescue Plan Act funds to pay employees of both Coos County nursing homes, the Coos County Attorney’s Office, Sheriff’s Office and Department of Corrections.
The decision was made during a joint meeting of the delegation and the Coos County Commissioners.
The plan was a compromise plan based upon information presented during the Wednesday meeting. Originally a request had been made to pay stipends for 16 weeks from Sept. 11 until Dec. 25, at a cost of $971,244, but the delegation opted to only approve the stipends up to Oct. 30 and capped the amount to be distributed to $500,000.
The requested stipend would pay an additional $200 per week to employees who work 30 or more hours while $100 would be paid to those employees who work 24-29 hours.
In support of the stipend, both of the county’s nursing home directors spoke to difficulties they are facing regarding staffing shortages at both nursing homes.
Coos County Nursing Hospital in West Stewartstown Director Laura Mills said many staff members were leaving the profession for jobs with better pay and fewer hours.
“Nursing home work is not easy,” she said. “The work is physically demanding, the hours are long and the employees of the nursing home are at risk for injuries and illness. LNAs (licensed nursing assistants) work is the most physically demanding and LNAs have the highest workers compensation claims of any profession.”
Mills said starting pay for housekeeping and laundry department staff starts at $11.72 an hour at the nursing homes, while LNA pay starts at $14.09 per hour. Mills said other companies, such as Walmart and Dunkin’ Donuts are paying between $15 to $17 an hour to start and other industries are also paying more than the nursing homes for staff.
She said at the West Stewartstown location, the nursing home is budgeted for 53 full-time equivalent LNAs, but has only 24 on staff. The nursing home also has 19 full-time equivalent licensed nursing positions, but only 13 licensed nurses on staff.
“We need to be able to offer something to encourage our current staff to stay,” Mills said.
Adding to the pay issues is the possibility of a vaccine mandate from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Mills said seven employees had resigned within the past month upon hearing of the potential mandate from CMS, although one had since rescinded their resignation. She added that she felt once the mandate became official more staff would probably leave the facility.
“Since the outbreak at our facility ended on Dec. 30, at the nursing home we have lost 39 employees,” Mills said.
Administrator Lynn Beede with the Coos County Nursing Home in Berlin echoed Mills sentiment. She said staff is tired and not able to continue the way they have been for the past year and a half.
“There is nothing more I can do,” Beede said. “I am hemorrhaging staff.”
Beede said the primary issue was wages and something needed to be done as the nursing homes are just not competitive at this time.
The originally submitted plan only included full-time sheriff’s department staff.
State Rep. Robert Theberge (R-Berlin) said he was concerned that part-time sheriff’s deputies were not included in the plan and asked the sheriff if he had been contacted regarding the proposal.
Sheriff Brian Valerino said he had not been contacted but did agree with Theberge’s assessment, noting that part-time deputies only get paid when they work and their work does involve potentially dangerous interactions with citizens.
Coos County Commissioner Paul Grenier said that the focus for the funds was on keeping the nursing homes operational. He did note that one of the concerns on the county’s end is that the county’s revenues may not hit the projections, while the expenditures would meet projections.
State Rep. Dennis Thompson (R-Colebrook) initially asked where the county’s payroll for the nursing homes was going due to the low numbers of staff members. He was curious as to why the discussion was not about raising wages in the county’s budget as opposed to the stipend, which he defined as a “stop-gap” measure.
Grenier responded that any changes in pay would need to be negotiated through the union.
“I would like to see it handled without ARPA funds through the budget funds we have,” Thompson said of the wage issues. “I think there are some other things the money (ARPA funds) could be used for. I am against the bonus system all-together, I think it should be handled with higher wages.
Beede said that while she agreed with Thompson about higher wages, something needed to be done now to stem the tide of employees leaving the nursing home.
“I can’t lose people due to wages,” she said, adding that while the measure is a temporary stop-gap, it could help the nursing homes retain staff.
After more discussion, in which other delegates and county commissioners voiced issues with the nearly $1 million price tag for the stipends, Thompson ultimately made a compromise motion to pay the requested stipends until Oct. 30, with the idea that the county could then have time to try to structure a plan for higher wages for the long-term for nursing home staff.
The motion included allowing stipends for part-time sheriff’s department employees and employees of the county attorney’s office, which had not been included in the original plan.
During the meeting, Coos County Attorney John McCormick stated that his office is also experiencing staffing issues. He said that he would in the future be making a presentation regarding this issue, but brought up some of the issues during Wednesday’s meeting.
McCormick said the case load for his office has doubled in the past year and that due to the influx of cases coming into his department through arrests, investigated cases — which often are the more serious cases — were not receiving the time commitment they deserve. He said his staff is having a hard time staying on top of the work coming into the office.
The compromise motion passed unanimously by a vote of 8-0.