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NY to give health care workers bonuses up to $3K as ‘a sign of our gratitude’

New York State will begin paying health care workers bonuses of up to $3,000 as part of the governor’s plan to bolster the state’s health care industry after many left the profession due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Health care jobs have been difficult to fill, and there are 9,300 job openings for health care workers in New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul said. The state is facing a “severe shortage” of workers in hospitals, nursing homes, long-term care facilities and for in-home care, she said.

To combat the shortage, Hochul has allocated $20 billion in the state budget to support health care workers, raise their wages and upgrade aging infrastructure and equipment. The $1.3 billion New York State Health Care and Mental Hygiene Worker Bonus Program is part of that.

Employers can now apply for the bonuses for their eligible employees through the state’s online portal at nysworkerbonus.com, Hochul announced Wednesday.

In January, Gov. Kathy Hochul unveiled her budget proposal, calling particular attention to her $10 billion multiyear plan to bolster the state’s health care industry. She called it the “largest investment in health care in state history.” Fast forward three months, and that $10 billion swelled to $20 billion.

Workers who make less than $125,000 a year, not including other bonuses or overtime pay, and have been in their positions for at least six months are eligible for the bonuses.

“They’re the foundation of our medical system,” Hochul said of health care workers during a press conference. “They got us through the last two-and-a-half years. There’s no doubt about it – thank God for them – but it did come at a physical cost and emotional cost, and they’re overworked and underpaid.”

Staffing was a major issue during the nearly six-week strike at Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo last year, and it is a main issue during the ongoing negotiations between Kaleida Health and unions representing about 6,300 of its workers.

Kaleida alone has hundreds of local job openings, and the health system has turned to high-priced travel workers to fill staffing gaps. Kaleida Chief Administrative Officer Mike Hughes said last month that the system is on track to spend $97 million this year on travel workers, nearly seven times more than the $14.5 million it spent in 2021.

With workers hard to find, especially at the low end of the wage scale, the state’s more than 600 nursing homes also are scrambling to comply with a New York staffing law that took effect April 1 and requires each facility to provide 3.5 hours of nursing care per resident per day.

With the bonus program, employers will receive the bonus money from the government and must pay their employees within 30 days, according to the state.

Eligible employees are those who “provide hands-on health care services,” ranging from counselors and therapists to dental assistants, nurses and pharmacists. Dozens of positions are eligible, according to the state.

Employees will be paid based on the number of hours they work. Those who work at least 35 hours a week can get up to $3,000 over two payments, while those who work fewer hours are eligible for bonuses between $500 and $2,000, according to the state.

“We still have to keep these health care workers,” Hochul said, adding many nurses have left the state for more lucrative travel contracts. “(This is) a sign of our gratitude, but also just to lift their financial burden.”

Perhaps no current issue looms larger for WNY’s hospitals, paying huge costs to travel agencies amid a staffing pinch and desperately searching for permanent employees to lessen their reliance on high-priced temporary workers.

The bonus program is one part of Hochul’s plan to combat the worker shortage and grow the state’s health care workforce by 20% over the next five years. The state budget includes $20 million for more programs and initiatives to bolster the industry, including:

• 1,000 full-tuition scholarships for nursing students. The Nurses for Our Future Scholarship covers tuition for students studying nursing at SUNY or CUNY schools who remain in the state for two years after graduation. The state saw 63,000 applicants for the 1,000 slots, Hochul said. The scholarship recipients were chosen by a lottery system.

• $7.7 billion to increase wages for home health care aides by $3 an hour over the next 18 months.

• $2.4 billion to upgrade antiquated health care infrastructure and lab capacity.

• $4 billion in aid to hospitals struggling as a result of the pandemic. Many hospitals took a “huge financial hit” during the pandemic when they canceled elective surgeries and other services to focus on caring for Covid-19 patients, Hochul said.

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