WHEELING — Now that COVID has kicked down the door separating work and home, Wheeling and West Virginia officials are hoping population growth will walk right in like it owns the place. A Nomadland on the flipside, if you will.
Could it happen? Could this city and parts beyond reverse years of population decline by providing a place so alluring in terms of quality and cost of living that incomers will choose Wheeling? Even if it takes a computer connection or other type of link to someplace bigger in order to make ends meet?
While politicos hash out the economic incentives and marketing campaigns aimed at such a possibility, others share perspectives from both the supply and demand sides of the workplace.
On the supply side, two voices are area residents who have already chosen a remote-work life. On the demand side, two voices represent health care (a sector already having a tough time finding enough workers) and a snapshot of how quickly the remote-work arena can change.
Jenny Sams was once a nurse at the former Ohio Valley Medical Center in downtown Wheeling.
She left the hospital — not when it shuttered in fall of 2019, but in 2013.
It was about motherhood. Sams said she couldn’t consistently get a schedule that was compatible with the needs of her three small children. Her final shift mix included days and nights, some of them back to back.
“OK,” Sams said of that last straw. “I decided to leave.”
Ironically, Sams’ working solution was to become a travel nurse. She is now a freelance medical professional who specializes in intensive care.
Because she is temporarily filling in at hospitals that find themselves in high need, Sams said travel nursing is a win-win-win for her. The variety of work settings is professionally challenging, she gets “significantly more” pay (augmented by a tax break for certain workers who travel) and she has greater control of her schedule, she explained.
The latter means Sams and her husband, whose administrative job is also flexible, can schedule their time so that one of them is always available to cover the needs of the household. But, it also means that, when Sams’ work duty calls, it’s often from far away.
On the day Sams spoke to the Sunday News-Register, she was on her way to work at a subsidiary of Johns Hopkins hospital system in Bethesda, Md. It is one of a handful of hospitals in a four-hour radius of her Washington, Pennsylvania, home where she stacks multiple shifts into a few days.
“Sometimes, when you travel, you can put it in that you have certain days that you want work. Like a nurse could request to work Friday, Saturday, Sunday and be off other days,” she explained.
Nurses are in such high demand, there are times when Sams can arrange her schedule so that she can have as many as five days in a row at home with her family. But, the remote-work life isn’t always so flexible.
In 2020, when hospitals needed fewer travel nurses because of a shutdown of non-essential healthcare, Sams had to take longer, more far-flung assignments in order to keep income flowing. She, in fact, spent several months of the year in the belly of the COVID beast, working in both New York City and Florida to help with massive outbreaks in those locations.
“That was pretty terrible,” she said of working in intensive care between April and early June of 2020. “I was in Manhattan and it was like nothing I’d ever seen before and hope I will never see again … New York shut down OR’s (operating rooms) and turned them into ICU’s. It was just wherever you could put a patient, there was a patient.”
“The New York assignment was scary for sure,” Sams said of moving exclusively between her Times Square hotel room and the horror of what was happening in city hospitals for weeks.
“A lot of healthcare workers were dying and we (family) didn’t know what would happen. We got affairs in order before I left just in case. Once we got through that and I never got COVID, things felt much easier and the fear was less.”
So much so that when the COVID need traveled to Florida, Sams went with it. At one point, the children (now in their teens and tweens) joined her there for a month, remote schooling from the Sunshine State while their mother was doing her own version of remote working.
That might have reduced the family’s overall pandemic anxiety in more ways than one.
“My kids are always a little worried when I go to work, even before COVID,” Sams said. “I was injured in a work-related crash, so my career in general makes them worry.”
RURAL TO EURO
Jodi Hunt can relate to that. She is a very different kind of remote worker who also joined that side of the workforce in order to better meet the needs of her household of five people and multiple animals.
“I want to be at home,” Hunt said of enjoying even small things like the natural daylight pouring in the windows of her rural Ohio County home in the middle of a workday.
“There are times when I’m sitting at home and I’m starving and I don’t even walk to the kitchen to get lunch,” said Hunt, who has worked full-time for a cloud-based tech company headquartered in Germany for more than two years. “My head’s just down over my computer.”
Other days, she can take time in the middle of the day to play with the dogs or to shuttle children here and there. Sometimes, she hauls a computer along so she can work even more remotely if the need arises.
Having worked remotely before and during COVID, Hunt said she has gained an unusual perspective. She had already mastered such skills as ignoring laundry in favor of getting the paying job done, but it has been interesting to watch her clients learn to do the same. It feels like a mega-shift, she noted.
“(Before COVID) everyone was in conference rooms, dressed up in suits and sitting around a long table watching PowerPoint presentations — that kind of thing,” she said of video calls.
“That has totally changed with COVID. My favorite meeting, I was talking to a team from Israel and one man’s son was in the background practicing his saxophone. He kept apologizing, but it’s made it a little more personable … less buttoned up. It’s nicer.”
Unlike Sams — who is moving from being a BSN to a Nurse Practitioner and will soon need to return to home-based work for at least several years — Hunt thinks it unlikely she will ever return to hour- and place-specific employment. And, that’s a decision that goes beyond being a mother.
“I don’t think it’s a woman-versus-man thing,” Hunt noted. “I think everyone has gotten a taste of it and I think we’ll see a lot of people will not return to the office.”
That kind of trending may excite politicians and help employees find a desirable work-life balance, but it concerns some on the demand side, according to Jim Kaufmann.
Kaufmann is president of the West Virginia Hospital Association, a Charleston-based organization that represents the interests of hospitals all over the state. He spoke to the News Register, using the travel-nursing trend as an example of how and where difficulties can appear.
“It was a huge issue during COVID,” Kaufmann said of the need of West Virginia hospitals to bring in the pricier travel nurses to fill short-term gaps. He estimated there were three times as many travel nurses working in the state during the height of COVID as had been before the pandemic.
“It makes it a challenge when you’re (competing) against other parts of the country,” Kaufmann said of urban jobs that can offer travel costs and housing in addition to premium pay.
It’s a situation that is spilling beyond travel nursing, he noted. Doctors are sometimes on the move, as well, particularly in a place as rural as West Virginia.
“To attract a provider, you need patient volume,” Kaufmann said of luring specialists through such practices as doctor sharing. “Small communities are getting in really creative ventures.”
The COVID-driven trend of video calls is also pushing healthcare further down the tele-health road, he added. In addition to sharing doctors among physical locations, emerging technology is making it possible for doctors to do even something as traditionally hands on as wound care remotely if the need is there.
“The cameras are so good, even using individual cell phones,” he explained of such out-of-office visits.
Seeing various forms of remote work as long-term issues, Kaufmann said the medical community is targeting potential employees as early as high school, hoping “they live here, they love here, they want to stay here.”
And, like the politicians interested in population growth, they are also hoping to attract some city docs or nurses here with whitewater rafting, hiking trails, low housing costs — whatever it takes. “Once they get here, they fall in love with it.”
Ironically, Kaufmann noted the political push for population depends, in part, on how well hospitals succeed at this. No one wants to move to a place where there is poor access to good healthcare, he said. Hospitals, schools, recreation, housing – it’s all part of the same package.
“Do I really want to move there?” Kaufmann identified as the critical question.
A follow-up question might be, “Will I be able to stay there?” suggested Brian Lego, a research associate professor with the West Virginia University Bureau for Business and Economic Research in Morgantown.
He mentioned yet another aspect of the remote-work arena — workers who live elsewhere and work in West Virginia. Offering the oil and gas sector as an example, he said conditions can change rapidly.
There was a point at which a large number of non-residents were coming into the state to work skilled jobs that can pay around $80,000 to $100,000 a year — spending a lot of that money right here. But as the industry has become more adept at side drilling — meaning fewer well sites above the ground — there is less need for quantity of workers than for top quality.
Pay may be higher than ever, but the jobs are simply fewer, Lego said. And, many of those who traveled here to work are on the road yet again.