LINCOLN — Hiring difficulties have forced a temporary halt in admissions at the new Central Nebraska Veterans Home in Kearney.
The action leaves the state-operated nursing home only two-thirds full, nearly eight months after it opened with much fanfare as a replacement for the outdated Grand Island Veterans Home.
State records show that, as of Aug. 2, the home had 79 beds empty out of its 225-bed capacity. There were 185 veterans and veterans’ spouses on a waiting list to get in.
John Hilgert, director of the State Department of Veterans Affairs, said officials “paused” admissions in July because of a shortage of cooks and other food-service workers. He could not say when admissions would be reopened.
“There’s a lot of folks that would like to get in there,” he said. “We’re not going to sacrifice safety and quality to do that.”
The Kearney home opened Jan. 16 with about 90 residents relocated from the Grand Island facility. New admissions began in March, after the home passed its initial federal Veterans Affairs inspection.
Hilgert said officials had planned to add residents gradually, about 10 to 12 per month, so they would have time to settle in and the facility would have time to hire and train the new staff needed to care for them.
More than 50 people were admitted from April through June, putting the home ahead of schedule on the admissions plan, he said.
But additional admissions will have to wait until the home can hire enough food-service assistants and cooks to care for more residents. Eight of the 23 job vacancies listed on the state jobs website for the Kearney home Monday were in food service.
Hilgert said the biggest problem is the competition for such workers from local restaurants, fast-food businesses and other employers. People can get jobs with most private businesses without having to go through the background checks and other hoops required to work for the state.
But Justin Hubley, executive director for the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, the largest state employees union, pointed to wages as the biggest obstacle. Food-service assistants working for the state veterans homes are paid $10.97 per hour, while a food-service cook gets $11.79 per hour.
“They’ve got to address some of that,” he said.
Before the home opened, Hilgert said officials had been concerned about finding enough certified nursing assistants. That had been a shortage area in the past, but he said a 20% boost in pay has helped attract candidates.
He said officials are working hard to fill the food-service positions, including holding job fairs, reaching out to Central Community College, working with local business leaders and spreading the word through existing employees. Some hours have been filled by temporary agency staff.
More than 150 people have been on the waiting list to get into first the Grand Island and now the Kearney home over the past three years, despite the number of empty beds. The three other veterans homes, in Norfolk, Scottsbluff and Bellevue, have fewer than 10 empty beds each.
The number of residents at the Grand Island home declined in the last years before the home closed, partly because of hiring struggles and partly in preparation for the move to Kearney.
The number of staff also declined as many Grand Island employees quit rather than commute to Kearney. Hilgert said almost all the employees remaining in mid-January, or about 208 people, made the switch.