Managing Your Practice

Finding employees during a pandemic


 

As private practices try to recover and rebuild in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many have faced an unexpected challenge: a paucity of employees.

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern, a dermatologist in Belleville, N.J.

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern

My own office is prime example: I have had job listings for both front- and back-office positions posted on all the major job boards and other employment portals for months, with a disappointing response. Of the few who do respond, many, incredibly, do not show up for their interviews!

It turns out that this is a widespread problem, and not just in medicine. A recent survey by the National Federation of Independent Business found that 42% of business owners, in all walks of life, had job openings that could not be filled, a record high. Over 90% of those hiring reported few or no qualified applicants and an increase in interview no-shows.

Clearly, this is a huge obstacle to growth – and even to conducting normal operations – for my practice and many others.

Reasons for the situation vary, but a big one has been the unfortunate fact that many open job positions actually pay less than the expanded unemployment benefits that many people have received under the March 2020 CARES Act. By one estimate, almost 70% of unemployed workers have been collecting more on unemployment than they earned while working. The CARES benefits expired in early September, but many potential workers continue to receive payments through a newer FEMA program, and some states have their own ongoing benefit programs.

Other reasons have been offered: Some candidates are unvaccinated (an immediate deal-breaker in my office), and some working parents continue to face a lack of childcare or in-person schooling for their children. Some applicants – regardless of vaccination status – have said they are hesitant to work in a medical office setting and risk getting COVID-19, despite all the precautions we have in place. Others have said they are waiting until the job market improves.

There are no easy solutions to this complicated problem, but here are a few suggestions culled from my research and conversations with HR professionals and others.

One obvious option is to offer higher wages, and perhaps even signing bonuses. “Whenever anyone says they can’t find the workers they need,” a consultant told me, “they are really saying they can’t find them at the wages they want to pay.” There are limits to the wages and benefits a private office with a very finite salary budget can offer, of course – but a few higher-paid employees may be preferable to no new workers at all.

For job candidates who fear COVID-19 exposure, assure them that their health and safety is a priority by spelling out the procedures your office is following (social distancing, reduced patient capacity, interaction barriers, face masks, avoidance of handshakes, enhanced cleaning procedures, symptom questionnaires, temperature checks, etc.) to minimize the risk of exposure.

You also may need to rework your interview process. In the Zoom era, most preliminary interviews can be conducted remotely. For on-site interviews, explain how you’re maintaining a safe interview environment by applying the same office safety policies to interactions with interviewees.

If a promising candidate doesn’t show up for an interview, the applicant could be making a token effort to obtain a job in order to perpetuate unemployment payments, but don’t jump to that conclusion. There may be extenuating circumstances, such as an emergency, illness, or traffic issues. Also, consider the possibility that it was your fault. If you waited too long to schedule the interview, another office could have lured them away. Or you may not have adequately explained your COVID-19 exposure safeguards. At the very least, a drawn-out process or a lack of transparency can make applicants apprehensive about accepting a job with you, particularly if other employers are pursuing them.

To counter the shortsighted appeal of collecting unemployment benefits, it may help to highlight the long-term growth opportunities available at your office. Consider outlining typical career tracks, or providing specific examples of how people have advanced their careers at your facility. I frequently cite the example of my current office manager, who began as an assistant receptionist almost 30 years ago.

Dr. Eastern practices dermatology and dermatologic surgery in Belleville, N.J. He is the author of numerous articles and textbook chapters, and is a longtime monthly columnist for Dermatology News. Write to him at [email protected].

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