SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WCIA) – Shantonia Jackson has been working in nursing homes since 1997. When she started, she worked with eight patients.

“Now it’s 2023, and sometimes I have 30 to 40 residents,” Jackson said. “But during the pandemic, I had sometimes up to 70 residents, because we were that short staffed.”

She said that’s made it much more challenging to care for people.

“When you get old, you want to be taken care of with dignity and respect,” Jackson said. “You don’t want nobody to tell you, ‘I can’t comb your hair. I can’t brush your teeth,’ and you’re so used to looking how you look for 30, 40, 50, 60 years.”

Since the start of the pandemic, the American Health Care Association reports more than 200,000 people have quit nursing homes.

“Workers had been sounding the alarm on this for many years before COVID happened,” Taylor Tefft, the lead organizer with SEIU Healthcare, said.

In 2019, the state passed legislation to put in place minimum staffing requirements for nursing homes, but they were delayed because of the pandemic. 

“The workforce has never been as tight and as hard as it is in this past two years of the pandemic,” Ron Nunziato, the senior policy director of regulatory affairs for the Health Care Council of Illinois, said.

Nunziato said nursing home facilities continue to struggle to find workers.

“The ramifications of COVID on facilities is really staff based that facilities are unable to find enough staff to be able to work in these facilities, and that ranges from housekeeping and dietary to nurses and CNAs (certified nursing assistants),” Nunziato said.

Matt Hartman, the executive director of the Illinois Health Care Association, said the organization supports the delay in fines because of the impact the pandemic has had on the staffing levels at nursing home facilities. 

“The 2019 negotiation which led to the imposition of these staffing based fines didn’t have the benefit of the knowledge of what the past three years have done to the sector,” Hartman said in a statement. “Nursing homes lost more jobs, over 200,000 net to date, than any other sector during the pandemic, and have been the slowest to recover.”

A law signed by Governor Pritzker this past month gives nursing homes until Jan. 1, 2025 to comply with the staffing requirements or they will face fines. Those requirements are based on the hours of care residents in those facilities need per day. Nursing homes must provide 2.5 hours of care per day for people who need intermediate care and 3.8 hours for residents in skilled care. Otherwise, they could face penalties. 

But Tefft said it needs to happen even sooner.

“The reality is our seniors, our folks living with disabilities, the workers in these nursing homes do not have another two and a half years to wait for staffing to be increased in nursing homes,” Tefft said. 

But until 2025, Tefft said SEIU will continue to fight for higher staffing levels.

“To a lot of our members, this is the most important issue to them even above getting higher wages, although we certainly believe a huge portion of what it’s going to take to bring people back to this field is a drastic increase in wages,” Tefft said.

Hartman said if the fines were to go into effect now, it would take away from the level of care needed at these facilities. 

“To implement these fines now, before these changes have had the opportunity to effect change in our workforce, would be horrible public policy, and not in the best interests of residents, existing staff, and the communities served by long term care centers,” Hartman said. “The fines would take money away from care, further undermine efforts at bolstering staff, and lead to additional access to care concerns through more restricted admissions and closures of centers.”