‘This is poaching’: Medical providers say they can’t keep up with state pay for nurses

The State of Wyoming is paying its nurses “extremely high wages” right now, making the ongoing staffing shortage at private health care facilities even worse, lawmakers heard this month.

“None of us can afford to compete with that high rate of pay,” said Tami Reed, administrator at Morning Star Care Center in Fort Washakie. “This is poaching, in my opinion.”

Reed told the legislature’s Labor, Health and Social Services Committee that she recently lost her assistant nursing director to a contract job at the Wyoming Life Resource Center that paid $80 per hour – and up to $140 per hour for overtime.

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“She couldn’t pass up that kind of money,” Reed said, noting that Morning Star pays its contract nurses $45 per hour.

Other employees are making the same decision, Reed added, with two more of her nurses leaving for state jobs in the past two weeks.

Statewide problem

The issue isn’t only affecting Morning Star, or even just nursing homes, Reed pointed out.

“It’s a healthcare facility issue across the board,” she said. “Whether they’re in home health, dialysis, clinics, hospitals – all of us are short and trying to keep our doors open, and we can’t afford to lose another nurse.

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“Even one or two nurses that we lose will make the difference of our doors closing.”

Communities affected by pay rates at state institutions include Riverton, Lander, the Wind River Indian Reservation, Sheridan, Gillette, Worland, Powell, Cody, Thermopolis, Buffalo, Greybull, Rock Springs, Green River, Basin and Evanston, Reed said.

“Statewide it’s really kind of becoming a huge problem,” Wyoming Sen. Troy McKeown, R-Gillette, agreed. “Once again, we have the state competing in a labor market with an unfair advantage.”

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Wyoming Sen. Tom James, R-Green River, cited Wyoming Statute 40-4-101, which says entities doing business in the state, including state government, can’t “prevent or substantially lessen competition” or “control or influence production of prices.”

“The state can’t control prices – which is what they’re doing,” James said. “They’re inflating them to levels that the private sector (cannot) meet.”

‘Vulnerable populations’

Christine Williams, the nurse manager at Wind River Dialysis Center in Fort Washakie, said several state officials have told her that the high rates of pay are necessary to combat staffing shortages at state-run facilities, which tend to serve more “vulnerable populations.”

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But she argued that “we all are … short-staffed, (and) we all have vulnerable populations.”

Her facility currently serves 69 patients who come in for dialysis three times a week, Williams said.

“I wonder what we will do with these residents … if we close,” she wrote in a letter to the committee. “I also wonder if the state has taken into consideration the local economies and the businesses that our paychecks support. …

“I currently employ 70 staff, and their paychecks go into the local economy of Fort Washakie, Ethete, Lander and Riverton.”

She asked the committee to try to “come up with a better solution” to the nursing shortage in Wyoming than “one that destroys us.”

Speakers at this month’s meeting offered several potential strategies for addressing the problem, from hiring foreign nurses, to buying robots, developing nursing apprenticeship programs in high schools, eliminating COVID-19 vaccine requirements, and “fast-tracking” nursing programs.

“We’re all looking for an answer,” said Carolyn Paseneaux, executive director of the Wyoming Health Care Association. “Our work force issue is going to cripple us if we don’t get started on it right away.”

She asked the committee to consider tackling the topic at its next meeting, which is scheduled to take place in 2023.

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