By Jack Cumming

This article ends with a top 10 list of workforce ideas, but we’ll start with a very short story. It’s a work of fiction.

Once upon a time, there was a departmental director, Sandy, in a senior living community. Among other responsibilities, she was tasked to ensure coverage every day of the week. On Sundays, Mischa ordinarily covered the need. He liked having a weekday off.

That changed when Sandy decided that everyone should share the “pain” of unpopular shifts, and she considered Sunday the most “painful” of all. Her heart was pure. She wanted to be fair. At the next stand-up, Sandy shared her thinking and asked for feedback.

Hector asked, “Does that mean that everyone has to work Sundays in rotation?”

“Yes,” Sandy replied, “that’s only fair.”

Now, Hector was devoted to his aging grandmother. She had grown frail in body but not in spirit. Hector took pride in escorting his grandmother to church every Sunday morning. It gave meaning to his life. He was able to give back what he had received.

When his turn to work Sunday approached, Hector went to Sandy. He told her of his predicament. “Would it be all right if I left from 10:30 to 12:30, so I can be with my grandmother in church and make sure she gets there and home again okay?” It was harder for him than this seems since English was not his first language. He struggled to describe his plight. He finished by saying, “I can come in an hour early and leave an hour late to make up the time.”

Sandy was sympathetic, but she believed that a rule was a rule. Also, she didn’t want to seem weak in how she managed the male employees. “I’m sorry,” she responded, “but if you can’t be there Sunday, we won’t need you on Monday.” Hector was stricken, and he slunk shaken from her office.

As his last shift ended before the dreaded Sunday, he again went to Sandy. “I’m sorry,” he said in his faltering English, “I go now.” That was his last day at work. Four days later he found a new job at higher pay. He misses the residents. Hector was a good worker.


That little tale ,which could be true, though, of course, it’s fiction, is instructive for addressing the workforce challenge. Some people treat that challenge like a passing storm over the plains of Oklahoma. “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute,” is how Will Rogers put it. Others think that the labor challenge is more fundamental.

The Golden Rule of Leadership

The first rule of good leadership is to treat others as you would like to be treated if your roles were reversed. That golden rule is the essence of Christianity, Judaism, and every other major world religion. It’s not new. It’s very easy for supervisors (and others up the corporate ladder) to think of themselves as above their “subordinates.” The better truth, though, is to act as though the roles might be reversed in an instant … because they may.

Failing to empathize with workers and to respond quickly is a destructive path at any time, and more so now when corporate needs exceed available resources. Failure to act leads to lost opportunity. When employers fail to step up to seize the opportunity of initiative, others will.

The least damaging consequence of a tepid response to the workforce challenge is that other employers (often Amazon) will draw workers away from your organization. Increasingly common, though, is that worker advocates turn to government mandates to force employers to do involuntarily what they might have gained praise for having done themselves.

It’s in the News

Two recent news stories illustrate both the opportunity and the risks. One story in Senior Housing News was directed at senior living specifically. The title: “In an ‘Employees’ World, Senior Living Providers Increase Flexibility for Workers.”

Clearly, that’s a good idea, though observation suggests that giving workers more flexibility is not as widespread as the title would have it. The SHN article emphasizes the growing expectation among workers for flexibility in work hours and for a culture that balances personal and work priorities.

The other story was in the morning news. The New York Times reported that California congressman Mark Takano introduced the Thirty-Two Hour Workweek Act in July. The United States has had a standard 40-hour workweek since the Great Depression. Before that, a 48-hour workweek was common, and 12-hour shifts (night/day) were the norm in many industries. Worker productivity has continued to improve since the Great Depression, but the legislated workweek remains the same.

Fair Labor Standards

Hawaii, too, is looking at similar legislation at the state level. Not surprisingly, labor unions are in favor of such legislation. Executive Director Randy Perreira of the Hawaii Government Employees Association said, “I think the failure of government to look at this more seriously would result in a decreased ability to attract and retain capable people.”

The HGEA is the labor representative for many Hawaii state employees. It can be easier for labor unions to negotiate mandated benefits in the legislature or at the ballot box than to persuade employers through bargaining to meet demands.

As the workforce shortage continues, employers miss out if they don’t respond decisively and effectively. The most common response that we hear from human resources directors is, “We meet the market.” They are regularly sampling labor market competitiveness and adjusting accordingly. The problem: That’s reacting rather than leading.

If a company wants to be seen as leading competition, as Amazon is with pay rates where it has operations, then employers have to stand out. That’s simple common sense. The trick is to build the buzz as the best place to work. That requires something bold — like a shorter workweek — accompanied by a strong local public relations campaign. Today, labor-dependent industries, like senior living, have to reach out to sell opportunities. No longer can managers just sit back, place an ad, and wait for applications to flood in.

The Government Specter

As the shortage continues, the vacuum left by employer inaction, or the perception of inaction, will be filled by politicians seeking to gain the limelight. The perceived passivity of employers, who appear to be stuck in outdated labor practices while prices are increasing with inflationary zeal, is driving an anti-business political dynamic.

Senior living is very much a part of that, as it is among the lowest-paying employers in many markets, and, viewed from outside the industry, the jobs can seem onerous. Waiting tables with no tip income, caring for people who are incontinent, or meeting the demands of cognitively challenged people are not tasks that sound attractive.

Labor is an increasingly powerful force in government. President Biden regularly declares his belief that “strong unions built the American middle class.” Despite Amazon’s reputation for raising local wages wherever it locates, politicians like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez regularly declare Amazon to be something different.

She tweeted, “Yes, Amazon workers did pay for this – with lower wages, union busting, a frenzied and inhumane workplace, and delivery drivers not having health insurance during a pandemic.” Success attracts critics. It’s best to embrace and heed them.

The burden of proof is on businesses, including senior living, especially tax-exempt not-for-profit businesses, to demonstrate that businesses treat workers with high regard, fair pay, and attractive working conditions.

Proactive Vs. Reactive

Consider this. Your organization could be the first in the area to offer a four-day week. That would draw positive publicity and most certainly would generate a considerable buzz among employment prospects. That would make your organization, and senior living generally, suddenly stand out from the crowd.

But, wait, there’s more. The move to a four-day week primarily involves cost. The law is that service over 40 hours has to be compensated at time-and-a-half. The effect of a four-day week would be to compensate for service over 32 hours at time-and-a-half.  In money terms, that’s the equivalent of a 10% pay increase if an employer continues staffing shifts exactly as the employer does now.

Beyond that, though, it doesn’t take much imagination to conceive of shift configurations that can meet coverage needs while giving employees flexibility. Digital shift management tools, which are readily available, enable any employer to stand out as progressive and to garner the positive buzz that goes to those who innovate.

Employers can take back the initiative. The alternative is that employee loyalty shifts to government processes, away from their employers. The alternative is lost opportunity. For now, the attraction of government action seems ascendant. But businesses, especially those not-for-profit businesses that pride themselves on public service, can act boldly to take the high road in the public discourse.

Top 10 Ideas

This line of reflection raises two crowning questions: Is corporate inaction a contributing factor to today’s workforce shortage? If we accept that responsibility, what can corporate leaders do to turn the shortage into opportunity, at least for the enterprise for which they are responsible?

Here is a top 10 list of ideas.

  1. Act boldly to gain the benefit of publicity and buzz.
  2. Treat your employees with the respect that you want them to give you.
  3. Provide onsite childcare, including sick childcare; it’s long overdue.
  4. Put better pay and working conditions for employees before pay and perquisites for executives.
  5. Embrace employee flexibility; employment now competes with the gig economy.
  6. Give workers digital tools; younger workers expect no less.
  7. Offer all workers paths to learn and earn advancement through demonstrated knowledge and competence.
  8. Educate potential supervisors on empathy; empathy training can be a requirement to earn consideration for promotion.
  9. Empower employees with guidelines in place of rigid rules; give employees principles and values rather than mandates.
  10. Eliminate excessive hierarchy; multiple layers limit employee satisfaction and impede business effectiveness.


  1. Become the trustworthy business that people want to work for; trust your employees as you want them to trust you.

Senior living is a people business. Some think it’s a real estate business. It’s not. It’s a business dedicated to better lives. That commitment to people requires adapting to changing cultural norms and to the changing needs and expectations of people. Above all, those businesses, especially people businesses, thrive that proactively seize opportunities and move forward, while those businesses wither that reactively are slow to act.

Click here for a glimpse at Germany, where most worker benefits are already mandated by government fiat. Click here for Marion McGovern’s classic book on the gig economy.