Employer-provided housing a possible solution for filling jobs in VT

ST. JOHNSBURY – Shawn Tester, Managing Director of Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital, has a trick up its sleeve when it comes to hiring traveling nurses to fill the nursing shortage created by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Free accommodation.

“We’ve had a housing problem in this area for many years,” Tester said. “That predates the pandemic, but then through the pandemic as we lost nursing staff and had to rely more on our traveling party, we started hitting this roadblock to find accommodation for them. It really came to a head last summer. “

Luckily, Tester was able to strike a deal with a local day and boarding high school that was no longer using one of its dormitories. Tester rented the dormitory for a year and used it to house traveling nurses working at the hospital free of charge.

“It gave us a competitive advantage because it’s not easy to find travelers either,” Tester said. “It’s amazing how competitive this market has become. Everyone needs nurses.”

Traveling nurses usually have to cover the cost of their own accommodation, using a stipend provided by their agencies. Any traveling nurse who works at Northeastern can live in the rented dorm and keep the allowance for herself, Tester said.

The Northeast is not alone in turning to housing to attract employees. The labor shortage in Vermont is causing all industries to think about ways to sweeten their offerings. Vermont’s most recent unemployment rate in February was 2.9%, significantly lower than the national average of 3.8%. In January, 13,500 job offers were posted on Vermont Job Link, the online job board operated by the state Department of Labor. Only 3,700 people were registered as unemployed.

“There are a lot more jobs available right now than there are people,” Vermont Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said.

Why not attract workers with higher wages?

At the other end of the spectrum, there is far fewer housing options than people looking for houses or rentals in Vermont, particularly in Chittenden County, the state’s main economic engine. The apartment vacancy rate in Chittenden County is about 0.9%.

Given the competition in the labor and housing markets, higher wages seem like a logical solution to attracting workers, but Harrington said many employers in Vermont lack the capacity to increase compensation ” beyond a significant threshold.

The University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington.  Photographed November 7, 2020.

“We find that employers are looking for innovative ways to attract people,” Harrington said. “What we’ve heard recently is that employers can buy or build housing and rent it to their employees. Others are considering offering childcare or relocation incentives.”

The University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington recently announced he is working with a developer to build 61 apartments for medical staff.

“There is a severe labor shortage facing nearly every employer in our region, but especially health care providers in Vermont,” the UVMMC said in a written statement. “We listen to our employees and the people we are trying to recruit when they say housing is a barrier for them.”

UVMMC is investing $2.8 million to help fund the approximately $15 million project. The medical center would take a 10-year head lease on the apartments, making them available to staff members, potentially with a subsidy for eligible employees, according to the UVMMC statement.

Ski resorts step up efforts to provide accommodation

Ski resorts, another founding sector of Vermont’s economy, also play the housing card. Vail Resorts provides employee housing at the three ski areas it owns in Vermont: Stowe, Okemo and Mount Snow. Vail also raised its minimum wage to $20 an hour in an effort to make itself more attractive as an employer.

“As part of its refocusing on employees, Vail Resorts plans to actively pursue the construction of new affordable housing on the lands it owns and continue the company’s leases in existing affordable housing developments, to help make housing more accessible and affordable for employees,” spokesman Adam White said. in an emailed statement.

Skiers and snowboarders climb the mountain at Stowe Mountain Resort in February 2017 after Colorado-based Vail Resorts announced it was buying Stowe for $50 million.

White said accommodation has long been a “key component” of the ski industry because there are so many seasonal workers who are unable to afford permanent accommodation. But he said the tight labor market has increased Vail’s interest in providing housing, as well as higher wages.

“Wage increases, housing, all of those things are about a commitment to your employees,” White said. “That’s what it takes these days to attract and retain talent, to get the employer on board. It’s a two-way street. The employer also has to step in and say, ‘Here’s what we can offer.'”

Killington, one of Vermont’s largest ski resorts, has been providing employee housing since 2018, according to spokeswoman Kristel Killary. But again, the tight labor market caused by COVID-19 has seen the resort step up its efforts on the housing front. Killington already has an apartment building and plans to purchase another by the end of this ski season, housing around 300 staff between the two properties.

“We have no immediate plans to purchase additional properties as we will be working on renovations to the property and improving the housing experience for our staff,” Killary said.

Building a home can be easier said than done

Another obstacle Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington sees for employers looking to housing as an incentive to hire new employees is another COVID-related issue – the high cost of construction and supply chain uncertainty. building materials.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made building houses very expensive due to various factors including shortage of labor and materials.

“As the cost of goods and services increases, it becomes extremely difficult for an employer to build new housing or rehabilitation housing in a location where it actually has positive value,” Harrington said. ‘An employer considering building optional accommodation decided the cost was simply too high.’

Harrington declined to identify the employer.

Back at the Northeast Vermont Regional Hospital, CEO Shawn Tester makes it clear he’s not thrilled with the hospital’s foray into housing, but he’s nonetheless in initial talks with a developer. local about construction on some of the 80 acres of undeveloped land in the northeast.

“Our stake in the project would be owned by us and then bring in a developer who can bring in additional resources, finances and skills,” Tester said. “We’re talking about market rate housing here for the workforce. We have housing issues at all income levels, but for our workforce it needs to be at the market rate.”

The tester said he didn’t know how big the development would be, or if it would be single-family homes or apartments, or a mix. There are a lot of unknowns.

“The last thing I want to do is get into housing, but if we’re going to make sure we’re providing the quality health care that we need in this community, that means I have to attract a workforce. works to meet the needs of the community, which means we have to solve the housing problem,” Tester said.

Contact Dan D’Ambrosio at 802-849-0497 or ddambrosio@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanDambrosioVT. This coverage is only possible with the support of our readers.

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