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Health care still reeling from the mass exodus of workers

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Digitally rendered image of an empty hospital intensive care unit

Thousands of workers have left health care, and they haven't been coming back. Getty Images

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We’ve been hearing the cries of woe from employers that a lot of workers have been quitting, changing jobs, or staying on the sidelines, waiting for better offers or more childcare or better COVID safety.

The quitting has been especially prodigious in the world of health care.

When the pandemic hit, ERs and ICUs were overwhelmed. But a lot of workers in other areas of health care were out of jobs, as everything from elective surgery to dental exams was canceled.

Demand for health care has rebounded, but a lot of workers haven’t come back, said Neeraj Bhandari at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

“This pandemic may have been the tipping point for folks who were close to retirement or they were burnt out, and they said ‘you know what, we’re going to leave the market,” Bhandari said.

There are 600,000 fewer workers in health care and social assistance now. Turnover is up, and experienced workers are leaving the profession.

“Their experience is very, very difficult to replicate or to replace if they decide to quit,” Bhandari said.

Nursing is down by nearly 400,000 workers. Katherine Virkstis, managing director at the health care research firm Advisory Board, said, “You know, for many years we talked about a looming shortage. And there’s no question there’s a shortage that is here and now.”

Sonia Lawrence is a registered critical care nurse at a big public hospital in New York City – where she’s worked for the last 27 years – and a nursing union board member.

“We’ve lost a lot of nurses. A lot of people left because of the mental anguish associated with COVID,” she said. “When COVID came. It took every last ounce of life from us. But — working in the hospital we’d become this family, we stuck together, we kept each other’s back.”

Now, she’s seeing co-workers retire early, or take temporary contracts as traveling-nurses, for as much as $7,000 to $10,000 per week.

“The work was getting harder, you had more patients. If I’m gonna be unappreciated, burnt out, and have to work this hard, I might as well leave and go and do it through the agency and make the more money,” she said.

Low pay is one reason health care providers are having trouble hiring and keeping some workers, said the Advisory Board’s Katherine Virkstis.

“Certified nursing assistants, techs — it’s pretty similar to the entry-level base pay at Target or Amazon or Starbucks. Someone in that group might find another job appealing,” she said.

Another job that probably doesn’t come with as much complexity, and stress, and health risk.

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