Amid pandemic surge, one health system’s workers fill different roles

As director of emergency preparedness for CentraCare, Rachel Mockros spends most days during the pandemic in virtual meetings on a computer screen, planning for disasters.

But last Friday, Mockros worked a shift as a basic care aide at St. Benedict’s Care Center, a nursing home in St. Cloud. Wearing blue scrubs with her hair in a bun, she hustled from one room to another as residents pushed their call buttons.

“We help with brushing teeth. We help with getting dressed,” she said. “We help with whatever it is they may need — brushing their hair, going to the bathroom, taking a bath.”

Like other health care systems, CentraCare — which operates St. Benedict’s Care Center, St. Cloud Hospital and other health care facilities in central Minnesota — is overwhelmed by the latest surge of COVID-19 and a staffing shortage.

To help relieve the crunch, CentraCare offers employees the opportunity to fill in where they’re most needed, even if it’s well outside of their career experience. 

The labor pool program started early in the pandemic as a way to shift employees whose departments were experiencing less demand. 

But it’s evolved to give employees interested in working beyond their regular hours the opportunity to help out in departments with critical staffing needs, spokesperson Karna Fronden said. 

More than 1,700 workers have offered to participate. They receive extra pay and training, if needed. 

Two health workers talk in a hallway.

Rachel Mockros (right) confers with Mike Lais, who is a certified nursing assistant. Mockros was picking up a shift working as a basic care aide at CentraCare’s St. Benedict’s Community.

Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Some are health care workers taking shifts in ICUs or emergency rooms, where they don’t normally work. Some are top administrators cleaning hospital rooms or folding linens.

As a leader, Mockros knows how critical the extra help is. CentraCare’s hospitals are full of patients who need critical care, and staffing throughout the system is stretched thin.

“At the core of it all is if we don’t send staff to the nursing home, we can’t move people out of the hospital,” she said. “Right now, we have 50 to 70 people who need to be discharged to a long-term care facility, and we don’t have beds.”

Mockros’ medical background is in community health and health care administration. But in college, she worked at St. Benedict’s as a recreational therapist. 

Picking up some evening and weekend shifts gives her a chance to get back to directly caring for patients, be more physically active and feel like she’s helping out in a crisis, Mockros said.

“When you’re in a director position, you don’t always get to be on the front line,” she said. “You don’t always get to be at the bedside. So that’s been really, really fascinating to learn.”

At St. Benedict’s, Mockros stays in constant motion, filling cups of ice water, closing blinds and even taking soiled linens down to the laundry room.

“It’s not glamorous,” she said. “But it is rewarding, because they need the help.”

St. Benedict’s nurse aide Michael Lais said he welcomes the extra help. He said it’s easiest when there are four employees taking care of the 33 residents on the third floor, but some days there are only two or three.

“With two people, it’s pretty hard for us to do our daily tasks here, because it’s just not enough hands to help,” Lais said.

A woman gets a cup of water.

Rachel Mockros helps a resident at St. Benedict’s Community by getting them water.

Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

St. Benedict’s administrator Susan Kratzke said they knew there would be limits to what people could do while filling jobs they’re not necessarily trained for. But she said they’ve done more than anticipated.

“People find things to do. They’re quick to learn,” she said. “They don’t want to just call bingo. They want to really get in there and do things that make a difference for the residents.”

Tammy Totz is a CentraCare accountant who’s been working from home in Clear Lake during the pandemic. But during evenings and on weekends, she swabs patients for COVID-19 at a Waite Park testing site. She also checks on and helps transport patients at the busy St. Cloud Hospital emergency room.

“If I can do these kinds of things to free up these nurses to take care of a patient, then that’s what I’m going to do,” she said. 

The extra duties give her a chance to get out of the house and think about something other than finance and accounting, Totz said. And it’s given her a new appreciation for the difficult job of front-line workers. 

“It’s kind of eye-opening,” Totz said. “You see the nurses and you hear about how overworked and how stressful it is. And until you’re actually there, and you see it, I don’t know if you have that full appreciation for what exactly it is that they’re dealing with.”

CentraCare employees also said the program lets them feel like they’re contributing to help their colleagues and patients. 

A man slides a food tray into a cart.

Tim Johnson, a recruiting marketing specialist for CentraCare, slides a food tray into a cart to be delivered to a patient at St. Cloud Hospital.

Courtesy of Tim Johnson

Tim Johnson, a recruiting marketing specialist, works every other Saturday putting fruit cups and Jell-O on trays and restocking kitchenettes at St. Cloud Hospital. 

“When we’re down there building trays, it’s not just filling what’s on the ticket,” he said. “It’s literally making sure somebody can heal. And it’s making sure that they get the nourishment that their body needs to allow that to happen.”

Melissa Pribyl has been a nurse for 27 years. For the past six years, she’s been a community health and wellness specialist for CentraCare Monticello, but she said many of her friends still work at the hospital.

A health worker stands at a counter.

Melissa Pribyl, a community health and wellness specialist, works a shift in the emergency room at the Monticello hospital.

Courtesy of Melissa Pribyl.

“I had a little bit of this guilty conscience, knowing that I could help,” Pribyl said. But at first, it wasn’t possible for salaried employees to step into hourly jobs. Once that hurdle was cleared, she started helping in the Monticello emergency room.

“It’s like a yearning in me to be able to help as a nurse for so many years, especially in a small regional hospital, where staffing is at the minimum anyway,” she said. 

Like other Minnesota health care providers, CentraCare has been hit hard with staffing burnout and employees getting sick, caring for ill family members or needing to quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure, said Kathy Parsons, vice president for population health. Some workers are facing child care challenges, and some have left to become traveling nurses, she said.

CentraCare also has lost some employees due to a COVID-19 vaccine mandate that starts Dec. 15, but that hasn’t been a major issue, Parsons said. Employees who refuse to get the vaccine will be placed on a leave of absence, and can return if they decide to get vaccinated, she said.

The labor pool program is scheduled through early January. It’s designed to be a short-term strategy to deal with the staffing shortage, as CentraCare works to recruit and hire more permanent workers.

Kratzke said she could see the labor pool program continuing as a way for people to earn extra income, continue doing something they love and fill a void.

“It’s going to be a while before we find the workforce that we need within this industry,” she said.

Mockros said she’d love to continue picking up shifts at St. Benedict’s once in a while.

“My heart for sure is in long-term care,” she said. “I love being with the residents. I love making the connections with them.”

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