Mayo Clinic hiring means nursing shortage for other facilities

Bobbi Jo Funke took Grace Bartz's blood pressure.
Bobbi Jo Funke, an LPN at St. Isidore Health Center of Greenwood Prairie in Plainview, took Grace Bartz's blood pressure, Apr. 9, 2015.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News

For 30 years, Bobbi Jo Funke has worked some form of nursing job.

From working as a nurse aid in high school to her current job as a licensed practical nurse at the St. Isidore Health Center in Plainview, Funke has showed a willingness to work long hours.

"I've committed myself to nights, weekends, holidays," she said. "You know, come in early, stay late. You know, that sort of stuff."

But after five years in her current job, Funke, 46, is leaving the senior living community on April 28. In May, she'll begin a new position as an LPN in Mayo Clinic's renal studies unit, a job that comes with a pay increase — and better hours.

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Across Greater Minnesota, nursing homes are in a bind, trying to keep nurses from being scooped up by better paying jobs, often at hospitals. That's especially true in southeast Minnesota where nursing home workers are often lured away by higher-paying jobs and working conditions at Mayo Clinic.

Bobbi Jo Funk took a blood sample.
Bobbi Jo Funke took a blood sample from resident Diane Dienger, Apr. 9, 2015.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News

Seeking more money for nurses, nursing home owners in Minnesota are pressing the state Legislature to change how their facilities are reimbursed. They say the current system doesn't give them enough money to recruit and retain workers.

Funke's new job, for example, comes with a steady work schedule, with no weekend or holiday work.

"I've got one grandbaby now and just spending that time with my daughter, and my family, and the other kids, my husband's kids, it's getting harder," she said. "Last year we had to schedule Christmas four times with all our families just to make it work."

Paula Lewis, St. Isidore's administrator, said nursing homes in the region increasingly are seeing their employees depart for better opportunities at the state's largest private employer. In the last few months, she's lost a handful of her best nurses to Mayo Clinic. Those who have stayed behind end up working odd schedules and double shifts.

Paula Lewis, administrator, St. Isidore
Paula Lewis, administrator at St. Isidore Health Center of Greenwood Prairie in Plainview, says her facility has a difficult time staffing nurses because of the competition from Mayo Clinic.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News

"It's not that they're leaving because they're unhappy, but because of the circumstances," she said.

St. Isidore's budget can accommodate 49 residents at any given time, but staffing challenges have kept that number around 44 in the last six months. That has affected revenue at the center, which now has a nearly $200,000 deficit.

"We had to start not taking admissions because we won't take in new residents if we don't have the staff on board to care for them," Lewis said. "So what happens, our census drops obviously or revenue drops and then things continue to mushroom. This is the first year that we are not in the black very significantly."

"If we weren't backed by Benedictine Health System... we would be in dire straits," Lewis said.

Mayo officials declined an interview request. But in an e-mail, Chief Nursing Officer Pamela Johnson said with the increasing retirement of baby boomers, the clinic's hiring has been "much more robust in the past six to eight months."

Johnson declined to say exactly how many nursing openings there currently are at the clinic, but said officials there are recruiting and hiring for positions across the nursing department, which has more than 7,000 employees.

For nursing home officials, the staffing challenges come as the industry advocates the state Legislature for a nearly $138 million plan that would completely overhaul how nursing homes are reimbursed in Minnesota.

Listening to the daily news
Elaine Burke, activities director at St. Isidore Health Center of Greenwood Prairie in Plainview, read the day's news for residents.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News

State Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, introduced a separate bill recently that would boost funding for nursing homes within 30 miles of Rochester. Liebling's bill, which she filed in case the larger one fails, would make sure nursing homes in the region are reimbursed at the median rate for Twin Cities' facilities.

Nursing home providers around southeast Minnesota say the bill making its way through the House and Senate would help alleviate some of the staffing shortages.

While facilities across the state face similar challenges, the problem is more acute in southeastern Minnesota because of Mayo Clinic's large presence, said Patti Cullen, president of the nursing home group Care Providers of Minnesota.

"Because Mayo does bus along the corridor, it's trickling further outside of the hub of Rochester," Cullen said. "So we're hearing it now even in Red Wing, we're hearing it in St. Peter. We're kind of hearing it expanding beyond what we used to call just the bubble of Mayo because they now do transportation so it's an hour from Rochester, you're still going to see some of these things happening."

With such a shortage, Cullen said, Mayo Clinic increasingly is hiring registered nurses and LPNs, making it harder for nursing homes to attract workers.

"They are able to pay more ... and the health care that [nurses] can get working for Mayo, the ability to go back to school, to get the RN, the feeder system," she said. "So there's a lot of things we just don't have the capacity to do."