Who Wants to Work Part Time?

Carrie Vaughan, for HealthLeaders Media, January 16, 2009

Last year marked the worst job market since 1945—2.6 million jobs were lost in 2008. The end of last year was particularly challenging—the unemployment rate rose to 7.2% in December from 6.7% in November, and roughly 500,000 jobs were lost in both November and December. The healthcare industry wasn't immune to job market losses, either; during the past few months, the number of hospitals and health systems laying off employees—mostly nonclinical staff—has been staggering.

So I wasn't too surprised to read that leaders at Mercy Hospital Medical Center in Des Moines, IA, were looking for volunteers to switch to part-time status or retire early. Employees have until January 19 to decide. Staff members who do volunteer to resign will receive two weeks' pay for each year they worked at the company along with a bonus week of pay.

I'm just not sure how many employees will actually take the offer. One of the side effects of this recession may be that employees who were planning to retire or work less hours are no longer able to do so. And the uncertainty of the job market may mean that few are willing to gamble on finding work elsewhere. In some instances, this could be good news for healthcare, if it means that physicians and nurses are going to stick around longer. Many regions are still being negatively impacted by work force shortages in healthcare.

And for those employees who are now forced to work a few extra years, having job flexibility will probably be one of their top concerns. If healthcare organizations want to keep these employees happy and remain attractive to new recruits in 2009, developing flexible staffing plans will be essential.

Flexibility is one of the keys to retention, says Jonathan Liepe, director of staffing services at Memorial Health System in Colorado Springs, CO. For example, if you get hired by a hospital as a night and weekend nurse and realize that you are stuck there until a daytime position opens up—which could take years—you probably won't stay very long. "That is where many hospitals have dropped the ball," says Liepe. Employees are more likely to stay in an organization if they can adjust their schedules based on work-life balance, and if they have opportunities to grow their skill sets and advance their careers.

That's one of the reasons Memorial Health has structured its internal staffing agency without too many restrictions. "We are able to garner those nurses looking for more work-life balance—trying to raise a family or getting close to retirement—so it allows them to pick and choose when they are available," Liepe says, adding that they can also choose where they'd like to work. This is different than other hospital internal float pools that force employees to work a specific set of hours and assign the job orders to them. Aside from a small number of nurses who must maintain a certain number of hours to receive benefits, there are no minimum hour requirements, Liepe explains. Employees are expected, however, to work enough hours to maintain their skill sets either at Memorial Health or through other clinical jobs in the community, he adds.

Being able to choose what unit they'd like to work on also appeals to those nurses and employees who like the variety that the float pool can offer by being able to work in different departments and units.

When it comes to staffing efficiency, Liepe has helped transform the three-hospital system's antiquated paper-based staffing process to an automated system that enables the central staffing office, unit directors, and employees to all see what shifts need to be filled and what credentials are required. The system has also helped Memorial Health reduce its reliance on contract labor.

Executives like the system because they can view contract labor costs in real time, rather than being blindsided at the end of the month, Liepe says. In addition, unit managers can also use the system to view the internal or agency candidates and choose the best person based on qualifications, experience working on that particular unit, and cost, which can lead to better quality and patient safety.

The system, from ShiftWise, helped the hospital save roughly $800,000 in 2007 on staffing costs, and it was on target to see similar savings (if not better) in 2008.

The hospital has also started its own internal travel healthcare professional position. It reaches out to professionals who only like to do travel assignments, and hires them directly for the 13-week or 26-week contract. Most of these employees are travelers who have worked with the health system in the past. Summers in Colorado and winters in Florida—it doesn't get more flexible that.

Carrie Vaughan is leadership editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at cvaughan@healthleadersmedia.com.
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