Health care heroes: staffing shortages add challenges

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Environmental services manager Jamie James saw colleagues quit in droves — fearful of catching COVID-19 and infecting their loved ones. Photo by Bryan Esler

Editor’s note: This is part eight of a nine-part series on health care employees working during the COVID-19 pandemic. To read more stories, click here.

Jamie James has been working for Spectrum Health for 17 years — working her way up from a housekeeping technician to environmental services manager, overseeing about 280 people in the Grand Rapids area, making sure the sheets are changed and the rooms are sterilized.

But she’s never seen anything like this past summer. In the months after the pandemic began in earnest, COVID-19 started sending hospital cleaning staff out the door. Many workers at Spectrum were growing worried about what it meant to work in a hospital while a virus raged through the community. Why stay in the job and risk their health — or the health of their family?

“That was what it came down to,” James said. “We had staff members that took care of elderly parents and grandparents, and they just felt like it wasn’t OK for them to go through this, risking (and) maybe infecting a loved one.”

That made things harder for a staff that already was stretched by COVID-19. James said that, pre-pandemic, it might take half an hour to clean a typical hospital room. But that was doubled after pandemic precautions snapped into place.

“I’ve never seen so many staff members leave at one time,” James said. “And I’ve worked there for almost 17 years.”

The resulting staff shortage made for tough times, James said, with Spectrum dangling bonuses to make sure shifts were covered. At the same time, she said, hospital hallways became a “ghost town,” especially with mid-pandemic restrictions on visitation.

One of the big lessons of the pandemic has been how important housekeeping staff is to keep hospitals functioning — especially during a deadly disease. Spectrum in Grand Rapids is a leading example. And James knows it.

“Their jobs are meaningful,” James said. “Our housekeeping staff members and roles are important because the hospital care would come to a halt if it weren’t for our
staff members.”

This story can be found in the May 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox each month, subscribe here

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