John Barker bought the bankrupt Commonwealth Care Center, a nursing home in northwest St. Paul, in 1991 and vowed to “make it a place people wanted to come to.” He spent years upgrading the facility, adding two floors, dozens of private rooms, and modern air conditioning and heating. He renamed it St. Anthony Park Home, after the neighborhood, which, aptly, is named after St. Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost people and things.
Now, with a fully functioning 84-bed, short- and long- term care facility, Barker needs staff. Specifically, he needs 160 employees to operate at maximum capacity, a critical threshold given the low profit margins allotted to any place funded largely by Medicare and Medicaid. Were those staffing levels to drop, “certainly we wouldn’t be able to have nearly as many residents,” he says. “And whether I’d be in business, I don’t even know. You have to have a certain number of occupied beds to cover overhead.”
While at any given time about 90 percent of St. Anthony Park patients are Minnesotans who were born in the United States, most of the workers who tend to them are immigrants and refugees. This includes about 70 percent of the nursing assistants, and more than a third of the nurses. “We couldn’t do anywhere near what we do now without them,” Barker says. At least half of the dietary and housekeeping staff are also foreign-born.
I don’t run into any administrators in the Twin Cities who don’t have lots and lots of foreign-born workers. I don’t think there’d be a healthcare industry, at least in the Twin Cities, if not for people from other countries.
“In my opinion, they’ve never taken jobs away from people who are U.S.-born. I just don’t have those people coming through my door,” Barker says. “For every 100 people who apply for a job, if 10 of them were white, U.S.-born Americans, that would be high. There just don’t seem to be that many people who are interested.”
Many of these new Americans are recent arrivals and graduates of the medical careers training program run by the International Institute of Minnesota, a resettlement agency. Launched in 1990, the medical training program has placed close to 2,100 nursing assistants in facilities throughout the Twin Cities. The nursing-assistant graduates have a 99 percent retention rate, an impressive statistic for an industry with a 60 percent turnover rate nationally. “Our clients come from a place that respects elders,” says Jane Graupman, the institute’s executive director. “They’ve taken care of their elders so they have that experience.”
This immigrant and refugee workforce doesn’t just allow healthcare facilities like Barker’s to serve Minnesotans. It also allows them to hire far more nurses, nurse managers, physical therapists, social workers, and administrators—positions all largely held by U.S.-born workers.
“I don’t run into any administrators in the Twin Cities who don’t have lots and lots of foreign-born workers,” says Barker. “I don’t think there’d be a healthcare industry, at least in the Twin Cities, if not for people from other countries.”