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Special Report: Wisconsin addressing workforce crisis for long-term care facilities

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Seven nursing homes in Wisconsin have closed this year, according to the Department of Health Services. In the last five years, 27 have closed.

Demand for places to live is increasing, however. There are more than 90,000 people who live in long-term care facilities in Wisconsin.

If the current trend continues, at some point, there won't be enough staff to take care of them.

The Wisconsin Assisted Living Association says more than 10,000 workers left the industry for non-healthcare jobs last year.

"I was taking care of my grandmother for years and decided just to go into this field," said Lydia Sanabria.

She's been a caregiver for 19 years.

"I love my residents," said Sanabria. She's moved up to the ranks to become an assistant manager at Willowgreen Home in Racine.

She says she loves her job but knows the profession isn't without its challenges.

"I have worked and felt over-worked, exhausted, and underpaid," said Lydia Sanabria, Assistant Manager of Willowgreen.

She's not alone. Wisconsin nursing homes and assisted living providers are in the middle of a workforce crisis. 

A 2018 report found 1 in 5 caregiver positions are open with as many as 16,500 vacancies across the state.

"It's a huge concern," said Sarah Bass.

Bass is with the Wisconsin Assisted Living Association, which attributes the shortage to an inability to offer competitive wages.

"Pay is a huge factor. We're competing against organizations like Kwik Trip and Ikea and other organizations that can pay their employees a starting wage of $13 an hour, versus $10.75," said Bass.

State leaders are taking steps to address the crisis, including a $60 million funding increase for family care, a Medicaid program that supports low-income residents in assisted living and supportive home care environments.

"In Milwaukee especially, many residents that live in assisted living are funded by family care," says Crystal Miller, President of Frontida Assisted Living.

Miller says the increase will help, but it's not enough.

"It needs to be a little more. We are not able to give wage increases because it's a onetime thing. We are not assured of it," said Miller.

If something isn't done, she's concerned some facilities may be forced to close their doors, which directly impacts the community where those residents live.

"In many assisted livings, we care for people who might be homeless if we didn't take care of them. They would end up in emergency rooms, potentially end up in jail. A lot of things can happen when there aren't routines provided for people who need care," said Miller.

Frontida is offering signing and referral bonuses to stay competitive. As for Sanabria, she hopes more people understand the inherent perks of being a caregiver.

"It's very rewarding to know that you can actually make a difference in someone's life." 

State-certified training is required to become a caregiver, but training is minimal, and many employers will front the cost.

To learn more, click here. 


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