Dilemma for SWFL retirement communities: Require vaccinated workers or risk low staffing
Few senior retirement communities in Southwest Florida are requiring employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, citing concern it could lead to employee turnover in today’s tough hiring market, according to industry officials.
Instead, retirement communities, like Moorings Park in Naples with 850 employees, say they are encouraging their workforces to get immunized and are tracking employee vaccination rates.
Exceptions include Vi at Bentley Village in North Naples, which announced May 3 that all 600 employees must be vaccinated by Aug. 1 for continued employment. The decision was made by its Chicago-based corporate owners, Vi Senior Living.
Another is Gladwell Fort Myers, a senior community in North Fort Myers owned by Kentucky-based Atria Senior Living, which announced in January that all 10,000 employees at 200 properties nationwide must be vaccinated by May 1, according to Atria.
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Recent national survey results show many retirement communities are undecided how they will shape their COVID-19 vaccine policy for employees, according to the nonprofit National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care, which tracks trends for industry leaders and investors.
Retirement communities that offer independent living, assisted living and nursing home services on one campus are traditionally a big draw for seniors who want active lifestyles with options for dining, fitness and social activities.
The senior housing industry took a beating during the pandemic when communal dining and social activities shut down and visitation was prohibited. Occupancy rates hit an all-time low of 78.8% in the first quarter of 2021, according to the Maryland-based National Investment Center.
“Senior housing residents have largely been vaccinated against COVID-19, which is dramatically reducing case counts and mortality rates, but this has not yet translated into a senior housing occupancy recovery,” Chuck Harry, chief operating officer of the National Investment Center, said in an April 8 news release.
While residents have embraced the vaccine, the employee vaccination rate at retirement communities in February and March was around 50%, then rose to 64% by April, according to the group.
In an April survey of 81 retirement communities nationwide, 24% said they “probably will or definitely will” require employees to get vaccinated and 11% said they might, according to the findings.
More than half, or 52%, said they did not plan to require it.
“Whether mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for staff will grow among operators is yet to be seen,” Lana Peck, a senior principal with the group, said in an April 29 survey report.
Southwest Florida facilities' vaccination policies
The decision at Vi at Bentley Village to require employees to get vaccinated by Aug. 1 was made by the parent company, Vi Senior Living, which owns 10 communities in the U.S.
Besides Bentley Village with 800 residents, the company owns two other properties in Florida, in Lantana and Aventura.
A company statement said the decision was part of ongoing and proactive measures to protect the health and safety of residents.
"Vi understands that vaccination against any infectious disease is a personal choice for each employee and respects each employer’s decision on this matter,” the statement said. “For those employees who choose not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, we are providing ample time to find other employment opportunities.”
Vi is allowing for employee exemptions on an individual basis for legitimate reasons, and those employees will be required to follow infection control measures that include regular COVID-19 screening and testing, the statement said.
Kevin Ahmadi, executive director of operations at Gulf Coast Village in Cape Coral, said the 430 employees are not required to get vaccinated against the virus. The community, operated by nonprofit Volunteers of America, has 500 residents.
More than 90% of residents of Gulf Coast are vaccinated, and getting more employees immunized is part of an ongoing discussion. He did not disclose the employee vaccination rate.
Employee retention is a challenge in the senior housing industry in the region and nationwide, which is a reason why Gulf Coast is not requiring its workforce to get vaccinated, he said.
“We are respectful of our employees' desire to not choose to be vaccinated,” he said.
Two other retirement communities in the Fort Myers area, Shell Point Village and Cypress Cove, declined to discuss their employee vaccination policies.
Moorings Park, NCH encourage but don't require workers to be vaccinated
At Moorings Park in Naples, 97% of the 1,000 residents are vaccinated and two-thirds of the 850 employees have gotten the shots although it’s not required of employees, said Dan Lavender, chief executive officer.
Moorings Park has watched how some retirement communities that required workers be vaccinated have lost employees, in some instances up to 15% of their workforces, Lavender said.
The decision at Moorings Park is to wait for the vaccines to be fully approved by the federal government as opposed to the current emergency use authorization, and to see if booster shots will be needed, he said.
“We feel right now there are a lot of unknowns,” Lavender said.
Moorings Park has consulted with the NCH Healthcare System, the dominant hospital provider in Collier County, which is not requiring the vaccine for its workforce.
“Like NCH, we are educating, encouraging and incentivizing the vaccine for (employees),” Lavender said.
Employees at Moorings Park who get the shots earn wellness points that help reduce their premiums for health insurance, he said.
The Florida Life Care Residents Association, which represents 14,000 seniors in 71 retirement communities across the state, said 30 communities have mandated the shots for employees and the rest are strongly encouraging it, Executive Director Bennett Napier said.
Residents’ councils at retirement communities overwhelmingly want employees vaccinated, Napier said.
They don’t want to see dining rooms and social activities shut down again if employees are infected, and they want their families to feel safe when they visit, he said.
The drawback for the retirement communities, many of which are corporate owned, is maintaining their workforces and that’s highly competitive now, he said.
Requiring the vaccine may cause some employees who object to it to seek jobs where it is not required, he said.
“Workforce retention is one of the biggest issues,” he said.
Senior living companies that require workers to be vaccinated
Nationally, some large corporate owners of retirement communities have required the vaccine for employees.
Atria Senior Living headquartered in Kentucky announced Jan. 11 that its 10,000 employees be vaccinated by May 1. The company owns 200 senior communities with 15,000 residents, including Gladwell Fort Myers.
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In early May, Atria announced that 98% of employees are vaccinated.
“We made the decision because we believe our residents deserve to live, and our employees deserve to work, in a vaccinated environment,” John Moore, chairman and chief executive officer, said in a May 7 news release.
Juniper Communities, based in New Jersey with 25 communities and 2,000 employees, announced in January that employees must get vaccinated.
“My belief is that you want to do this (getting vaccinated) for the common good, and that’s our culture,” Lynne Katzmann, chief executive officer and founder of Juniper, said in a statement.
"When COVID started we had a single goal, to prevent illness and foster well-being. Making getting vaccinated a condition of employment is in concert with other choices Juniper Communities made during the pandemic," Katzmann said.
At Juniper, 98% of employees have been vaccinated, the same as its rate for residents. The company in 2019 sold two properties in Naples and Cape Coral.
About 40 employees sought jobs elsewhere because of the vaccine requirement, according to the company.
Sunrise Senior Living, a Virginia-based company with four of its 270 retirement communities in Florida, announced in March that the vaccine is required for employees.
Being vaccinated is an “essential job function for all new and current” employees and must be done by July 31, the company said.
“The decision was made carefully with advice from public health officials to promote the safety of everyone,” according to a company statement.
Sunrise’s Florida locations are in Jacksonville, Boynton Beach, Boca Raton and Tampa.