A nationwide and local nursing shortage is prompting Winnebago County to consider increasing the salaries of River Bluff Nursing Home staff for the second time in two years.

What they make Certified nursing assistant
Certified nursing assistants work under the supervision of nurses to provide basic bedside care such as eating, dressing and bathing.
Starting pay for nursing assistants at River Bluff Nursing Home: $9.93 an hour
Illinois average pay for nursing aides: $10.44 an hour
Difference: 51 cents

Licensed practical nurse
A nurse who has completed a practical nursing program and has a state license to provide routine patient care under the direction of a registered nurse or a physician.
Starting pay for practical nurses at River Bluff Nursing Home: $17.17 an hour
Illinois average pay for practical nurses: Not available

Registered nurse
Registered nurses are required to complete more coursework and training than practical nurses and may take on more responsibility, including supervision of practical nurses.
Starting pay for registered nurses at River Bluff Nursing Home: $21.21
Illinois average pay for registered nurses: $27.21 an hour
Difference: $6
Sources: Winnebago County, U.S. Department of Labor A nationwide and local nursing shortage is prompting Winnebago County to consider increasing the salaries of River Bluff Nursing Home staff for the second time in two years.

The problem isn’t all about dollars and cents, said Jim Kelly, the county’s human resources director, so the county also is considering other incentives to prevent staff at the 304-bed county nursing home from leaving for jobs that offer what some perceive to be better perks or working conditions. Kelly said he hopes to give the County Board a package of incentives to consider within a month.

“The turnover at River Bluff is quite significant,” Kelly said. “We tend to have a retention issue with nursing assistants and an attraction problem with nurses.”

River Bluff employs 148 full- and part-time certified nursing assistants, the staff responsible for much of the day-to-day interaction with residents. The job isn’t easy, said Elyse Johnson, a nursing assistant who has worked at River Bluff a little more than a year. When residents need to be fed or bathed or turned in their bed, an assistant like Johnson gets the job.

River Bluff has hired 78 assistants since Jan. 1, and 84 have left.

“It’s a very demanding job,” Johnson said. “If you can’t do the physical part, it’s probably not for you. Some (assistants) start working here, and the job turns out to be not what they expected and they leave.”

River Bluff is not alone. Illinois has a 75-percent turnover rate for nursing assistants, according to the Illinois Foundation for Quality Healthcare. To make the job more attractive, River Bluff has strived to make wages more competitive, Kelly said. Today, starting pay for nursing assistants at River Bluff is $9.93 an hour. The 2006 average wage for nursing aides in Illinois was $10.44, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

River Bluff nursing assistants earn an annual 3-percent wage increase, and after working there for three years qualify for an extra 1-percent longevity pay raise. In November 2005, the County Board approved 10 percent hourly raises for River Bluff nurses, not including nursing assistants.

Registered nurses at River Bluff start at $21.21 an hour, compared to $27.21 for the state average. In between a nursing assistant and a registered nurse is a licensed practical nurse. Practical nurses can administer medication and perform more clinical tasks than a nursing assistant but lack the training and certification of a registered nurse. Starting pay for practical nurses is $17.17 an hour. The U.S. Department of
Labor doesn’t track average wages for practical nurses.

Money isn’t the only reason nursing assistants tend to leave River Bluff, Kelly said.

“We haven’t come up with any singular theme,” he said. “My own opinion is that it takes two years to go to school and get your CNA certification. That’s not that long. I think a lot of CNAs finish their schooling, get a job in a nursing home and then say, ‘I don’t like working in these places, it’s kind of gloomy.’”

To help solve that problem, River Bluff is trying to “grow our own,” said Administrator Phyllis Schwebke.

The typical practical nurse program costs about $3,500 at Rock Valley College. The registered nurse program costs about $5,300. The county offers a handful of $1,000 scholarships to River Bluff employees who go back to school to obtain a nursing license. The county also offers a $350 annual tuition reimbursement to employees who earn acceptable grades for prerequisite classes.

The county may consider enhancing the tuition reimbursement program, Schwebke said, because “$350 doesn’t go very far.”

In the end, though, keeping a stable work force at River Bluff often comes down to finding the right person for the job. Mary Artz was hired as a unit attendant, passing out snacks and doing residents’ laundry, six years ago. She obtained her nursing assistant certification and most recently took advantage of tuition reimbursements to get her practical nursing license.

“I like it here,” Artz said. “The benefits are good, and I wouldn’t be as happy working in a hospital where registered nurses can definitely make more money.”
Schwebke said long-term care nurses “must be a different breed of people.”

“Residents are coming to us older and sicker than they used to be 10 or 12 years ago,” Schwebke said. “The stresses of the job are different, but the nurses can also get to know and love their patients. It’s like losing a family members when a resident dies.”

Staff writer Isaac Guerrero can be reached at 815-987-1371 or iguerrero@rrstar.com.