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‘People need a change’

file photoEmpty streets of the usual busy downtown Ashland during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ashland-area employers reckon with pandemic workforce challenges

ASHLAND — As the coronavirus pandemic redefined how people live and work, employers have come face-to-face with the consequence of 16 months in altered reality.

Major Ashland employers and business professionals say economic climate, telework, social behavior and a housing crisis together have created a tenuous labor situation.

The city of Ashland employs about 250 people and represents one of the largest employers in the community.

A cascade of factors, including a social shift in life decision-making, have sculpted a “tumultuous time to be an employer,” said outgoing City Manager pro tem Adam Hanks.

At this point in the pandemic, Hanks said, individuals prioritize job elements differently, such as work format (commuting, remote work, etc.), salary and organizational culture.

Budget development, changes in administrative leadership, conflict among the City Council and ensuing negative community commentary about city employee salary may be counted as contributing factors to turnover, though Hanks emphasized those factors do not stand alone.

“Just like everybody else, we are seeing higher turnover coming out of COVID than we’ve ever had — than I’ve seen, statistically,” Hanks said. “Some of those are in very visible areas and some of those are in areas the community wouldn’t see.”

As positions were cut from the budget and others left open, some employees perceived job security as teetering on the edge.

The city aimed to provide an equitable level of service “in shrinking mode” — setting more work and stress on the shoulders of remaining staff, possibly leading to burnout, Hanks said.

“When an employer is in a cut mode, those that aren’t yet on the cusp of seeing layoffs or seeing their positions being eliminated, that also might incentivize them to start looking elsewhere,” he said.

Hanks said the combination of factors affecting labor make the city more vulnerable. Small work teams are also at risk for functionally debilitating COVID-19 outbreaks, he said. One or two people absent from a four- to eight-person department would make a significant impact.

Some city jobs are considered competitive within the Rogue Valley, he said, but for technical positions that require a broader search beyond local, the city quickly loses its edge. Still, Hanks said, a wage raise wouldn’t solve the multifaceted issue.

“We have had a really challenging time allowing full vacation time,” he added. “Even if [employees] had it, they were taking it for child care and school and other things. They weren’t actually recharging their batteries at all. They were doing other very essential, personal work during the pandemic.”

Thus far, no COVID-19 outbreaks have been reported, the city has continued to function with minimal staffing, and remote work plans have proved effective for certain positions, he said.

Concurrently, attractive signing bonuses for positions elsewhere in the region create a competitive compensation environment, and prompt consideration of what else the “employee of today” desires and expects from a job, balanced with legal mandates and community desires and expectations for services, Hanks said.

“We can’t function without employees,” he said. “We grind to a halt and the value that we bring and the quality of service that we provide to the community is wholly dependent on the quality and stability of our workforce.”

Travel Ashland Director Katharine Cato said tourism businesses faced labor shortage issues prior to the pandemic, which only broke open an existing “weak faultline.”

Ashland was fortunate to experience an uptick in new visitors and rebound more quickly than other Oregon cities, Cato said. At the same time, she said, the pandemic embedded doubt about stable visitor volume, which influenced employees’ decisions about whether to come back to work.

“Overall, in the industry, you have either tables that you can’t seat people at because you don’t have enough staff to staff them, or you have rooms they can’t rent because they don’t have enough staff to clean them,” Cato said.

Despite general volatility, hiring among kitchen staff is on the rise recently, she said. Spring and early summer occupancy in Southern Oregon was strong, Cato said.

Enthusiasm and demand for participation in local commerce exists, but securing staff to respond to the demand remains a challenge, said Dana Preston, membership and business development director for the Ashland Chamber of Commerce.

Some employers enticed staff back to work after a business closure only to see another public health protocol change the landscape again, she said. Displacement from wildfires, low college student population in town and lack of available child care also contribute to the issue.

Preston said for some, starting and stopping unemployment benefits as health rollbacks came and went formed a sense of instability that inhibited a return to work.

“There’s a hesitancy of returning to work that isn’t just financially based, it’s based in mental health and well-being, and physical health,” Cato said. “Everyone has a different comfort level with exposure, with vaccinations and with the public.”

At Southern Oregon University, a drop in revenue drove workforce decisions, said Greg Perkinson, vice president for finance and administration.

As enrollment and revenue took a dive, SOU joined the Oregon Work Share program, which leveraged CARES Act funding to offset employer costs. More than 330 employees initially transitioned to Work Share, representing a 20%-40% furlough without layoffs, he said. The accompanying unemployment benefit kept most employees “whole.”

SOU created a hardship leave bank in case employees ran out of paid time off — an attempt to create stability for staff and faculty, he said.

The university negotiated eight days of furlough around Thanksgiving and spring break with the union representing faculty to minimize disruption to the academic schedule, he said.

SOU recently “thawed the freeze” on hiring and a new dean of students started in mid-July.

Recognizing a shift in how employees work, what challenges they may face as the Delta variant of COVID-19 surges in Oregon, maintaining appropriate health and safety protocols and supporting a balance of family and work are part of “honoring the voice of the employee” and exchanging fear for confidence amid an ongoing pandemic, he said.

At local health care facilities, turnover and vacancy rates are more than double the norm, according to Robert Begg, vice president of human resources for Asante.

“Frankly, all of health care nationally is as well,” Begg said. “We’re not an outlier.”

Thirty-five positions are open at Ashland Community Hospital, including 14 registered nurse positions and seven certified nursing assistant positions.

With about 280 active employees, the vacancy rate at ACH is over 12%, and as of July 28, the overall Asante health care system had 599 open positions, representing just under a 10% vacancy rate.

Rates are even higher at health care facilities in Klamath Falls and Bend, Begg said.

A hundred recently graduated nurses are expected to start with the Asante system next month, including seven at ACH.

More traveling nurses are supplementing the Asante workforce than ever before, but the expense associated with contracted nurse labor and a 13-week work window are not ideal operationally on a large scale, Begg said.

“They may be an awesome nurse, but it takes a little time to get them trained up, and then you know they’re going to leave in 13 weeks,” he said. “It takes a lot of resources to take the next person coming in and make sure that they’re trained, so you always have that period of transition where you’re not getting the full benefit of that resource.”

In the past, people typically left Asante to relocate to a metropolitan area. Nearly 30% of people leaving recently are changing careers — either transitioning to a lower-stress health care job or another industry entirely, Begg said. Remote work has also become attractive for people who want to change jobs without leaving the Rogue Valley.

Outside of direct patient care, Asante employs about 600 people remotely and has about 300 hybrid workers.

“When you do that, you lose connection to the employee,” Begg said of telework. “I do think that we’re going to continue to see some turnover in those areas as well because when they realize they can work remotely for Asante or they can work remotely for anybody, sometimes the grass seems greener on the other side.”

“I think people are more willing to try something different because they’re stressed out in the space that they’re in,” he continued. “People need a change. It’s hard to remain committed when we’re working people this hard.”

Some supervisors and managers have taken up direct care duties as staff battle burnout. A few people accepted employment offers from afar, only to discover they could not find housing here, Begg said.

Focused recruitment efforts aim to draw former employees of West Coast hospitals that laid off staff or closed due to the pandemic, he said.

Looking beyond the next two to three years, Begg said, colleges are reporting an uptick in interest in the health care field.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.