Feb. 23—CONCORD — State Senate Democrats want to bring back $300-per-week bonuses to recruit and retain full-time workers in the long-term care industry, which has struggled from losses because of the pandemic.
Part-time workers would be eligible for an extra $150 a week. Both payments would be covered by federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars through legislation (SB 332) presented Wednesday by Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh, D-Manchester.
Anyone working at least 30 hours a week would get the full-time stipend. Those working less would get the part-time amount.
“This is an effort to respond to the very real struggles facing long-term care workers,” Cavanaugh told the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
Nationally, nursing homes have 400,000 fewer workers than in March 2020, when the pandemic began.
In New Hampshire, the Hillsborough County Nursing Home presently has 144 employee vacancies, including 109 for front-line workers at the nursing home, Cavanaugh said.
All nine other Senate Democrats have signed onto Cavanaugh’s bill. The extra payments would begin July 1 and run through the end of the year.
Cavanaugh said he’s open to changes, including a total cap on how much could be spent under this renewed program.
“This is something we have to try to do to help this whole group,” Cavanaugh said.
New Hampshire was the first state to offer state stipends, which sprang from the ninth emergency order that Gov. Chris Sununu signed in March 2020.
The order created a $50 million Healthcare Relief Fund. In mid-April 2020, Sununu announced the state would give $300 weekly payments to front-line workers at hospitals and long-term care settings that were accepting federal Medicaid reimbursement.
The state also offered the same stipends for several months to first responders in local and state police and fire agencies.
The health care stipends were dispensed through June 2020.
The state spent $68 million in federal COVID-19 relief grants on the stipends.
Stipends returned twice
When a second surge of COVID-19 cases hit, before vaccines were available, Sununu brought the $300 stipends back for long-term care workers for six weeks, from mid-November through December 2020.
That round consumed another $30 million in grant funds.
“The previous workforce stipend program didn’t succeed to the extent they would like for recruitment efforts, but they were terrific for retention,” Cavanaugh said.
Sen. Tom Sherman, D-Rye, said this latest round of stipends should be extended to those working in assisted living centers who didn’t receive the earlier payments.
Many assisted-living centers rely more on the private insurance coverage that their residents still have.
Sen. James Gray, R-Rochester, questioned how these workers would cope after the program ended.
“Three hundred dollars a week, that’s $10 an hour, which seems a little higher to me, but what happens in January 2023,” Gray asked. “I am trying to retain employees and they are going to have to deal with a $10-an-hour pay cut.”
Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said he was surprised the bill didn’t have a fiscal note, which would spell out how much it would cost and how many workers could receive these payments.
John Williams, legislative director for the Department of Health and Human Services, said he will supply that financial backup to the Senate panel in the coming days.
A lobbyist for Life Coping Inc. of Nashua offered an amendment to ensure these payments also go to care providers offering those services.
“These folks are doing front-line work making sure family members get the care they need to stay in their homes,” said Heidi Kroll.
Cavanaugh supports the amendment to cover these workers, who were covered under the earlier stipends given in 2020.
The New Hampshire Health Care Association, the state’s nursing home umbrella group, also supports the bill.
“Any help we can get hiring workers, retaining workers, is greatly appreciated,” said Teresa Rosenberger, who lobbies for the industry.