Healthcare wages and employment during the height of COVID-19

healthcare wages, covid-19

The average wages for healthcare workers rose less than wages in other industries during 2020 and 2021 across the US – despite the pandemic causing healthcare burnout

Healthcare workers continue to bear the heavy burden of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, yet there has been minimal to no increases in financial support given to them to suffice for their long hours and hard work.

Due to this lack of wage increase and accumulating burnout experienced amongst workers, many people have dropped out of healthcare work, creating healthcare shortages and employment disparities.

COVID-19 critically disrupted the healthcare work force, increasing health risks, and burnout from increased patient burdens and childcare disruptions. Researchers suggest that changes to the use and finances of healthcare institutions should be made to prevent burnout.

Critical for planning and responding to ongoing and future public health crises, researchers developed a study demonstrating the importance of increasing the wages of healthcare workers – especially in an intense, hard period like a pandemic.

Impacting substantial employment declines

Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Health Forum, researchers used industry- and county-level data from the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics covering 95% of all U.S. jobs during 2020 and the first six months of 2021.

From this, they analysed wages and the number of jobs at physician offices, hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, home healthcare facilities, dental offices, and other healthcare settings – looking at whether the amount of healthcare jobs in a county is demonstrated in how hard that county was hit by COVID-19 cases – as well as how much of a healthcare shortage they faced before the pandemic.

The results showed that healthcare employment levels declined in mid-2020 to 21.1 million jobs, a 5.2% decrease from 22.2 million in 2019.

Declines in employment varied across healthcare organisation types during the first year of the pandemic – where the largest decline was seen in dental offices at 10%, and skilled nursing facilities at 8.4%.

Additionally, healthcare wages increased at a lower rate relative to the national average across all sectors. Compared to 2019, there was a 5% increase in healthcare wages versus 6.7% for the national average in 2020, and 1.5% increase in health care versus 6.9% nationally in 2021.

While employment levels of most healthcare sectors rebounded to pre-COVID levels in 2021, the researchers found there was a 13.6% decline in employment at skilled nursing facilities compared to 2019.

Pandemic frontline workers lacking appropriate funding

Kosali Simon, one of study’s co-authors, said: “While there has been extensive media coverage of the considerable employment declines in the health care sector, evidence from complete national employment and wages was scarce.

“These findings provide a data-driven picture of employment levels by various health care settings and can help guide decision-making not only around the current health care shortage but also during a future crisis.”

Thuy Nguyen, research assistant professor at the University of Michigan and senior author, said: “The study found substantial employment declines among nursing homes, which were more serious in areas with high COVID-19 burden. But those findings were expected, as these employees may experience greater frustration and burnout associated with the pandemic.”

Christopher Whaley, a policy researcher at the Rand Corp. and another co-author of the study, added: “While federal programs provided financial assistance to hospitals and institutions, it is important to focus on the effect of the pandemic on health care employment levels and wages, especially if we want to prevent such shortages in the future.”


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