Mercy keeps its Joplin workforce engaged for long haul

December 1, 2011

Talent-sharing program puts tornado-displaced workers in meaningful jobs

Recent graduate Brittany McBee was scheduled to start a full-time nursing job in the emergency room at St. John's Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Mo., on Monday, May 23. But circumstance — in the form of an EF-5 tornado that destroyed the hospital and a quarter of the town — swept her into the thick of things a day ahead of schedule.

A Joplin native, the 24-year-old McBee lived with her parents while commuting to nursing school in Miami, Okla. (Her parents and grandparents lost their homes in the storm, but were unharmed.) She'd also worked for six years as a nursing technician at St. John's Regional, and that's where she headed reflexively after the tornado struck. She pitched in at a triage site on the hospital parking lot, and later she moved to an emergency care center at a public hall. "I worked nonstop for 48 hours," she said.

When her workload and her emotions began to settle down, she wondered whether she still had a job. She needn't have worried.

An employer's promise
Mercy President and Chief Executive Lynn Britton, who oversees 30 hospitals and more than 200 outpatient facilities across a multistate system, had learned from New Orleans' experience. Hurricane Katrina had led to the exodus of legions of health care professionals from that city; they found work elsewhere and never came back. Britton didn't want that to be the case in Joplin, which serves as a regional medical hub for Southwest Missouri.

So three days after the tornado struck, Britton announced a bold commitment to employees and the community at a press conference on the hospital parking lot: Mercy would rebuild, and, in the meantime, it would keep its 2,200-member Joplin workforce employed, in part through a talent-sharing program that would loan Mercy colleagues to other Mercy facilities and to other employers.

"I challenged our human resources team to make sure we not only kept people employed, but actively engaged in meaningful work and in keeping their skills current," Britton said. "I knew we could do something with the surrounding Mercy facilities, but it wasn't clear to me yet how much of a temporary facility in Joplin we would have during this rebuilding period," and how large an employee roster it would require. Britton noted that within days after the tornado, Mercy made operational a 60-bed M*A*S*H-like tent hospital.

Mercy struck its first talent sharing partnership with McCune-Brooks Regional Hospital, a non-Mercy facility in nearby Carthage, Mo., and Mercy coworkers reported for duty the week of June 6. Since then, the talent-sharing program has put 95 percent of Mercy's employees back to work. More than 30 companies, mostly health and human services related, have signed talent-sharing contracts with Mercy. These host companies requisition employees as needed and pay the coworkers the regular hourly wage they earned in their hospital jobs. Mercy picks up the cost of employee benefits and all travel and/or housing expenses.

Flexible workforce
"There is no question that it has been a challenge to find meaningful work for nearly 2,200 people," said Britton. "In some cases, it may not be what they were used to doing in the past. That was one of the things I asked all Mercy workers in Joplin to do — to be flexible. If they were willing to be flexible, we would find them meaningful work."

As it turned out, the majority of employees were able to stay in Joplin working at either Mercy's temporary hospital or clinic locations, or in other functions such as security, finance or the central business office.

The tent hospital on the original St. John's Regional campus has been replaced with a "hard-sided modular facility," said Britton, and plans are under way to replace that with a permanent concrete and steel modular structure in the spring of 2012. That move will allow the Joplin hospital, now called St. John's Mercy Hospital, to regain its Level II Trauma Center designation.

Mercy recently unveiled its plans to invest $950 million to restore and expand its presence in Joplin, a commitment anchored by a 327-bed hospital and a second health care campus. Mercy will break ground on the hospital in early 2012 and open it in 2014.

Fresh skills
In the meantime, some Mercy Joplin employees, including veteran intensive care nurse Rita Jens, have chosen to relocate and broaden their skills by learning another specialty.

Jens, who spent her nursing career until recently working with adults, is now a neonatal intensive care unit nurse at Mercy Health Center in Oklahoma City, which is located about three and a half hours away from Joplin. She said she'd always wanted to take care of newborns but didn't have the experience. When she learned of the NICU job opening in Oklahoma, she was told it would be no problem to train her for the post.

Of course taking the job meant she would have to live in Oklahoma City and commute home to see her family. "I was in a (flexible) position in that my children are grown, my parents are healthy and my husband is competent," said Jens, 45, who likely will stay in Oklahoma for at least a year. "I could travel easier than someone who has a child in day care or is taking care of an elderly family member. I felt that the positions in Joplin should remain for coworkers with small children and family responsibilities. I had none of those complications."

Mercy provided Jens with a furnished apartment in nearby Edmond, Okla., and also reimbursed her for the cost of securing an Oklahoma nursing license. Her supervisors in Oklahoma City have been very accommodating, she added, allowing her to work 12-hour shifts three or four consecutive days so that she can return to Joplin the rest of the week.

"Very few companies in Joplin kept paying their employees and providing them with jobs as well as health and life insurance, but Mercy did," Jens said. "That was a huge burden off my shoulders and for coworkers having to also deal with finding a house or a car, that was a huge relief for them as well.

"On top of it all," Jens continued, "Mercy gave us an annual wage increase on our paychecks."

Stephanie Kinsch, 30, a physical therapy assistant, went to four funerals in the weeks that followed the tornado, including one for a friend of her 9-year-old son. The tornado ultimately claimed 162 lives. She said she's grateful she didn't have to grieve the loss of a job, too.

"I was out of work for four weeks following the tornado, then worked in security for the Joplin (Mercy) location," she explained. "I did that for three weeks and then got pulled out to do the job that I love."

Today Kinsch is working as a physical therapy assistant at St. John's Hospital in Springfield, Mo. She commutes the two hours each way, five days a week with another coworker. Mercy reimburses their mileage expenses. Though she is paid for 40 hours a week, she is allowed to work fewer hours to compensate for the long drive.

"It's amazing how welcoming the staff at Mercy Springfield has been," she said. "After the tornado, Springfield saw an increase in patients, and the stress level among the therapists was quite high. Since my coworker Erin and I arrived (from Joplin), we are not only helping patients, we are also helping coworkers with their extra caseload, so they are thrilled we are there."

Britton realizes that some employees might not come back to Joplin, but he expects the overwhelming majority to remain with Mercy. Among those settling in elsewhere is nurse McBee, who took an assignment as a cardiovascular intensive care nurse at Mercy Hospital St. Louis through the talent-sharing program.

"I wanted to stay within Mercy because I knew I would be taken care of," she said. "Whether I stay in St. Louis after my two-year contract runs out or go back to Joplin or go someplace else, chances are I will stay with Mercy."

Britton likes that kind of feedback. The Sisters of Mercy, Mercy's founding sponsors "always had a strong bias for action and were always creative and entrepreneurial," he said. "The talent-sharing program is a perfect manifestation of that."

Back to work

To date, 95 percent of Joplin's 2,200 hospital employees at St. John's Mercy are back to work.

  • 218 at non-Mercy facilities
  • 162 at Mercy facilities in Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas and Oklahoma
  • 1,240 at Mercy in Joplin either in the temporary replacement hospital or in other functions such as security, finance or the central business office
  • 330 at Mercy Clinic locations in the Joplin area

Timeline for Mercy's recovery

May 22, 2011
A devastating EF-5 tornado strikes Joplin, Mo., eventually claiming 162 lives and destroying much of the town, including the 367-bed St. John's Regional Medical Center (now called St. John's Mercy Hospital).

May 25, 2011 
Mercy President and Chief Executive Lynn Britton announces a talent-sharing program designed to keep all St. John's Mercy in Joplin employees on the payroll and receiving benefits.

May 29, 2011
St. John's Mercy has operational a 60-bed M*A*S*H-like tent facility to treat patients. A blessing was said at the exact time the tornado struck the week before.

June 16, 2011
Mercy announces a talent-sharing agreement with McCune-Brooks Regional Hospital in Carthage, Mo. The partnership puts 127 St. John's Mercy employees back to work.

Aug. 16, 2011
Mercy announces it will invest $950 million to restore and expand medical services in the Joplin area; plans include a new hospital about three miles from the old one.

September 2011
St. John's Mercy moves from its tent facility to a modular hospital.

January 2012
Scheduled groundbreaking for new St. John's Mercy in Joplin. (All the hospitals in the Mercy system are in the process of being rebranded as "Mercy.")

Spring 2012
A permanent modular structure will be commissioned as a hospital to replace the first modular unit, allowing St. John's Mercy to regain its Level II Trauma Center designation while a new permanent replacement hospital is under construction.

New hospital opens.

Traveling nurses lighten the load at host hospital

Michele Stewart, chief nurse and chief operating officer at Mercy Medical Center in Rogers, Ark., calls the 24 recent nursing graduates and the four experienced ones she inherited from St. John's Mercy in Joplin through talent-sharing a blessing.

"We had several nurses go on family leave just as our OR was expanding, so we welcomed the four (veteran) nurses with open arms. They have been just phenomenal," Stewart said.

Once the tornado hit, the newly minted nurses couldn't go through orientation in Joplin so Stewart offered the Rogers hospital as an alternative.

"This way, all 24 could come to the same facility to do their orientation," she said. "We have a one-to-one mentoring program in place where each new nurse is paired with an experienced RN. So by the end of three months, the new nurses are ready and comfortable to take on patients of their own."

Orientation ended in November and as Catholic Health World goes to press, Stewart expects some of the 24 to apply for the 10 full-time nursing jobs open at her hospital. "Some of the jobs may not be in areas these new nurses have an interest in," said Stewart. "The emergency nurses will likely go back to Joplin.

"But truly, having all 24 here for awhile has been terrific. They really bonded with our team, and I think they all had a great experience. We, at Rogers, truly feel honored to have been a part of the talent-sharing program."


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.