In an ‘Employees’ World,’ Senior Living Providers Increase Flexibility for Workers

Senior living operators are offering employees more control over when and how often they work in an effort to stem a historic labor market.

In the wake of the period known as the “great resignation,” employee flexibility is a trend that is impacting much of the workforce, just not senior living. In a survey of more than 10,000 knowledge workers around the world – those in fields such as information technology, systems analytics, and web development – 95% reported that they wanted flexible hours.

“The trend in the labor markets is toward flexibility,” Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD) CEO Cindy Baier told Senior Housing News.

Brookdale is not the only senior living operator stressing flexibility in its workforce. Schedule control is something workers in senior living desire,, according to Summit Vista Associate Executive Director and COO Tineka Hardwrick.

“I think it’s an employee’s world right now, so we’re going to have to learn how to acclimate and be more flexible,” Hardwrick told Senior Housing News.

Summit Vista, a life plan community in Taylorsville, Utah, recently changed its scheduling arrangements to give its high school workers more wiggle room on shifts they take.

Summit Vista is one of a growing number of operators in senior living that are buying into employee flexibility and offering various scheduling options.

For instance, Aegis Living is using a float pool concept to help staff its communities and improve the availability of workers. Similarly, Frontier Management is exploring peak-hour staffing as a creative way to maintain service quality while giving workers more flexibility in setting their schedules.

That’s not to say all workers desire flexibility above all else. Woodlands, Texas-based Avanti Senior Living, for example, has found that many employees still want to work set days each week. But even then, the company is looking to schedule shifts around the lives of its employees.

While offering flexibility in hours and shifts may have been a response to pressures in the labor market, operators are reaping the benefits in staff retention and employee satisfaction. As such, many have enshrined it into their operations.

Staffing on demand

Staffing has been a top concern at Aegis Living this year. The Bellevue, Washington-based operator in January began piloting its own staffing agency in a move aimed at saving millions of dollars in labor expenses.

Now, that “float pool” strategy is helping to relieve labor pressures and cutting down on the number of open positions at the company. Float pools have long been used in clinical settings. In hospitals, for instance, a nurse working in a float pool might simply show up to work and be assigned to a unit that had a need on that particular day, rather than be dedicated to a specific wing or area every day.

Aegis staffs its 34 open communities in a similar way, according to Lee Kaufmann, senior vice president of human resources. Using the float pool, Aegis can direct workers to communities as they are needed based on demand.

As the labor crunch ratcheted up in 2021, leaders at Bellevue, Washington-based Aegis were not seeing as many new employees come through the company’s door as they hoped or wanted.

Kaufmann, Aegis Founder and CEO Dwane Clark, and President Sandra Preyale convened to troubleshoot ways to improve staffing and bring more workers through the door.

“When we went through our model, we found that we have a core group of team members that we retain,” Kaufmann told SHN. “But we were finding that we needed to introduce a different option to attract a different talent level.”

So, the float pool concept was born. Today, Aegis is seeking employees who are interested in handling a variety of tasks and in working at multiple communities.

“Some of them want to work two days a week, 12 hours; some of them want to work at different places for the experience and some want to work only three days,” Kaufmann said. “It allows us… to attract somebody different than the person who is looking for the 40-hour-a-week job, or even career pathing.”

Since implementing the float pool strategy, Aegis has reduced its dependence on costly staffing agency usage, while reducing the number of openings at the company’s communities.

“Before the pandemic, float pools were done, but they weren’t necessary,” Kaufmann said. “Now, it’s part of our business.”

Flexible scheduling is becoming a fixture with other senior living operators as well. For example, Brookdale uses an electronic scheduling tool that allows workers to swap shifts and pick their own hours.

Portland, Oregon-based Frontier Management is another large national operator that has boosted flexibility for workers in recent months.

“You can’t just do the set schedules like we’ve always done in this industry,” said Kandice Alcorn, vice president of clinical services at Frontier Management.

Earlier in the pandemic, Frontier started working with a consultant that specializes in staffing to address labor pressures at its 146 assisted living, independent living, and memory care communities.

In researching what senior living workers wanted, the company arrived on the conclusion that many did not want to work set schedules each week. So, the operator has experimented with offering both flexible scheduling and staffing levels that change during peak hours.

For a management company that oversees communities in all four time zones, keeping track of labor is a huge task. Frontier uses a business intelligence tool to track labor trends within its portfolio to model acuity trends and give teams in the field the ability to monitor and predict staffing needs and adjust hours each day.

Frontier also bolstered wages by 15% to 25% and invested more than $8.5 million in other benefits for employees, Frontier President and CEO, Greg Roderick said.

“If you’re going to work really hard and you’re going to be dedicated, we’re going to reward you for it,” Roderick told SHN.

Employee power

In a survey by human resources company Randstad NV, 77% of American workers reported that they desire more flexibility in their work lives, while 84% said they are reassessing how work fits into their personal schedule.

In years past, senior living operators might have not been as willing to work with staff seeking to set their own schedules. But as staffing headwinds continue to weigh on operators’ bottom lines in 2022, many are willing to take a new look at these strategies in an effort to attract and retain talent.

Like many others in the industry, Summit Vista’s workforce includes a number of high school students. In the past, an operator like Summit Vista might have required students to give up two days a week to work and set their schedules in stone – but the life plan community took a different approach amid the pandemic and its challenges on labor. Today, the company is allowing high schoolers to work as little as one day per week for a few hours at a time.

“In that past, we would say ‘You have to give us at least two days per week,'” Hardwrick told SHN.

As a result, the Taylorsville, Utah-based operator is hiring more high school students than ever before, “allowing us to fill all of the schedules that we need to be filled,” said Hardwrick.

Avanti Senior Living is also working more closely with its workers with regard to scheduling shifts in its seven communities, according to Co-Founder and COO Lori Alford.

While the operator has talked in the past about adopting a gig worker model, “what we found was, there is still a great group of people that want stability,” she said.

“We’ve really focused on more of those people who want stability, and we are working through how we can fit their time into our schedule instead of us saying, ‘Here’s your schedule,'” Alford told SHN.

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