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By July 4, nearly 70% of American adults will have at least one vaccination shot. Children 12 years of age and older are beginning to get vaccinated at a pretty good clip, and now we are hearing those vaccinations may soon be available for children as young as two years old. States across the country are lifting health orders, and it’s starting to feel like we could get back to “normal” soon.

But I don’t think we will ever fully go back to what we considered “normal” 18 months ago. Parts of how we lived our lives will come back, but some things will never be the same. The pandemic has changed us permanently.

Many of us are also feeling anxious about the shift out of pandemic life, including me. At Beech Brook, we spent countless hours redesigning the way we do business and the way we serve our clients. The changes were hard then and changes we face today will also be hard. Maybe harder. The difference between March of 2020 and now is that when the pandemic started, we had to change in very specific ways. There was really no choice. But now that health restrictions have been lifted and the risk to our staff and clients has dropped dramatically, we have some choices to make. In 2020, we didn’t all have to agree on what course we would take. The restrictions were what they were. Now, we find that maybe our pre-pandemic lives were not as great as we may have believed, but we all have different ideas about what that means and what we should do about it.

At Beech Brook, we basically have two groups of staff: those who work in an office setting and those who provide services in other places, such as schools, day care centers, recreation centers, or in homes. Our customers want us to provide in-person, face-to-face services with children and their families. This is a customer-driven decision, and most of us would agree that while providing services through teleservices was adequate, it is probably not optimal for most (not all) of our clients, especially young children. And we want to provide the best.

On the surface, returning to the “normal” way of delivering services should be easy, but it isn’t. The biggest problem is that we face a significant staffing shortage, not unlike nearly every similar agency that I am aware of. We know that we are going to experience a significant increase in referrals soon, likely starting in late August or early September, but we simply do not have enough staff to meet the need by doing things the old way.

Office-based staff have demonstrated that they, too, can do their jobs effectively from home. Beech Brook invested significant resources in technology, allowing people to work as well from home as they could on site. Many don’t want to return to “normal” and come back to the office. Clearly, for Beech Brook, there are financial benefits to this arrangement. Staff would spend less time traveling and be more efficient. Our physical space footprint would be smaller, saving money on space and utilities. This money could go to serving clients. But I worry about losing continuity and culture.

In my non-scientific understanding of the problem, there are several reasons for staffing shortages. It’s not unique to Beech Brook.

A survey conducted by the Council of Agency Directors of 17 agencies comparable to Beech Brook shows that we are better off than most regarding staff vacancies. Beech Brook stands at 7% currently.

But the competition for and the cost of staffing has never been higher.

Some people blame the increased unemployment benefits during the pandemic as a major reason why we have staffing shortages. Maybe that is true, but we will see shortly because those increased benefits run out at the end of June. But I am skeptical, at least in this business.

I think we are experiencing a shift in how Americans view the costs and benefits of work, especially for two-income families. For instance, 4 million women have left the workforce. Over 85% of Beech Brook’s employees are women. I use this example because it is simply the easiest group to see. I am sure there are many men who have left the workforce for similar reasons. And I am not sure they are coming back.

The benefit of work and more income for the family may not seem as great a benefit now. Concerns for personal safety linger. The pandemic allowed families to see what it was like when one parent had to stay home with the kids. It shed light on how the old way added to their stress and chipped away at their quality of life. Working from home or not working at all allowed people to see the cost of childcare, the cost of the commute to work, all the time spent after work doing the laundry, cutting the grass, preparing meals (or going out because everyone is too tired) in a different way. The math has changed.

We have created some telehealth-only positions at Beech Brook to serve some outpatient clients. This allows staff to work from home and allows Beech Brook to hire people from anywhere in Ohio. But this won’t fully address our ability to meet the surge that is sure to come.

Beech Brook has been able to weather the pandemic because of the commitment, hard work and ingenuity of our staff. Stimulus dollars helped with the budget and allowed us to afford the technology we needed to get through. But that is gone now.

We are busily redesigning programs, looking for better efficiency and redoubling our efforts to bring more charitable dollars into the organization, all to bring to bear the staff and resources we need to fulfill our mission.

Now the hard work begins, and it may be harder than transitioning into our pandemic lives. As this fiscal year winds down and we look forward to a new fiscal year beginning on July 1, we understand that our world has changed forever and that we must also change if we have any hope of meeting the needs of our community.

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