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US hospitals struggle to match Walmart pay as staff flees omicron

John Tozzi, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

In Terre Haute, Indiana, Zuel scrambles to get adequate coverage for each 12-hour shift. The health system, with about 3,000 employees, recently decided to move nurses from support positions into direct patient care. Radiology and lab technicians, phlebotomists and respiratory therapists are all hard to find.

Some relief arrived in uniform in December: The state sent a couple of medics and other support staff from the National Guard. They mostly work in the emergency department, where every morning patients wait for hospital beds to open. Others work in nutrition.

The current COVID surge in the area isn’t expected to subside before February. The volume of patients means staffing will remain tight. “​​We need every person every day,” Zuel said.

In November, as COVID spread throughout the state, Indiana’s unemployment rate was 3%, or 1.2 percentage points lower than national level. The tight labor market has had ripple effects: Sometimes short-staffed pharmacies close without notice, so patients can’t pick up their prescriptions after they’re discharged, hospital officials said.

Nebraska has the lowest unemployment rate of any U.S. state, at 1.8% in November. In that environment, lots of employers struggle to find workers. But the stakes in health care are higher, especially in the COVID era.

Troy Bruntz runs Community Hospital, a 25-bed critical access facility in McCook, Nebraska. He’s been trying to recruit a third ultrasound technician for at least six months without getting a single application.

For lower-level positions, the hospital competes with the local Walmart store, where wages are rising. He monitors the pay offered by the retailer as well as the other large local employers, a hose manufacturer and an irrigation equipment supplier.

“What used to be an $8 job now is $15,” said Bruntz, a 52-year-old who once worked as an accountant for KPMG. “That’s the only way we get people to come to work.”


Most of the patients in Community Hospital aren’t there for COVID, but the facility is still full. Patient transfers get delayed as larger regional facilities fill up too, backing up the emergency room. “I went to the floor to help,” Bruntz said. “I’m a CPA, remember – but I can sit and watch a patient that needs someone to monitor them. And I did.”

He sees a long-term dilemma that will persist beyond COVID waves, particularly in rural areas with aging populations. “We’re going to have so many more people retiring than entering the workforce that this is just going to get worse,” Bruntz said.

Across the state in Columbus, Nebraska, Mike Hansen, chief executive of Columbus Community Hospital, said hourly entry-level wages have been going up for two years and are now in the $15 to $18 range. Nursing wages have increased by $4 to $6 per hour just in the last year, to start at $35 to $40 and rising with experience.

Revised quarantine guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have helped get staff back faster after exposures or illnesses, he said.

Still, the hospital is admitting six to 12 COVID patients daily. Other patients coming in seem to be sicker, Hansen said. He’s hoping that the omicron variant may cause less severe disease, resulting in fewer patients needing hospitalization.

Hansen, 61, calls the pandemic labor squeeze the worst in his four-decade career. “People need to realize, health-care people have been at this for almost two years now,” he said. “It’s been highly stressful.”

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