Ashley Benitez

Ashley Benitez is planning on using her apprenticeship as a certified nursing assistant with a Genesis HealthCare nursing home as a springboard to a career as a licensed practical nurse or a registered nurse.

“I’m really loving this,” the 29-year-old Benitez said Monday as she spoke about the opportunity to take part in a pilot program that pays her as she learns how to become a CNA. “This is the place I’m going to be for years to come.”

Benitez and six other CNA apprentices learning and working at Genesis HealthCare’s St. Joseph Center in Trumbull received their state Department of Labor apprenticeship cards from interim Commissioner Dante Bartolomeo Tuesday to celebrate National Apprenticeship Week.

Each finished 147 hours of classroom instruction and will begin work this week caring for residents with the guidance of a mentor. Thanks to a partnership between Genesis HealthCare and the New England Health Care Employees Union, SEIU 1199 Training Fund, the seven apprentices have been paid while completing classroom work and automatically have jobs with incremental raises throughout the program and beyond.

It’s the type of collaboration that Bartolomeo hopes will inspire other nursing homes to start similar programs to create a stable, well-trained health care workforce in the decades to come.

“They are earning while they are learning,” Bartolomeo said Monday. “It’s a really solid pathway to well-paying career and apprenticeships are the gold standard of training.”

The union’s training fund is paying for the classroom training and for apprentices to take their certification test while Genesis HealthCare agreed to hire the trainees. They will retain their jobs with raises at the end of the year, company officials said.

“It is a win-win for the students, aka apprentices, as they are being paid while going to school and are being placed in an open position immediately after their training,” said St. Joseph Center Executive Director Helen Byron. “For us it is a win because we are filling seven open CNA positions on the day and evening shifts.  Right now there is a shortage of CNAs and we are grateful for this program and for the ability to provide these positions for these wonderful students.”

The union training funding came from a federal grant that will support similar apprenticeships at four other Genesis HealthCare nursing homes beginning early next year. Those programs will likely include 26 participants, said Steve Bender, director of the union’s training fund.

“We are hoping and expecting that other nursing home companies will see the value of this,” Bender said. 

“We need employers to step up and be apprenticeship sponsors,” the interim commissioner said.

The DOL and union officials estimate that the state will need to hire 2,000 CNAs each year for the next decade to keep up with the demand for services. LPNs and registered nurses are also in high demand, union officials said.

There was already a shortage of CNAs before the coronavirus pandemic struck, said Jesse Martin, the union’s vice president of nursing homes and hospitals. But since the public health crisis began impacting the state, the call for qualified CNAs has intensified, especially as nursing home residents had early, high rates of COVID-19 cases and virus-related deaths.

“If you could find 500 to 800 CNAs, we could find them a job,” Martin said of the need for health care workers. “If there were 200 LPNs and RNs, we could get them jobs today.”

The collaboration for the apprenticeship program creates a knowledgeable and stable workforce protected by a union at a time when COVID-19 is the biggest crisis that health care workers have faced, Martin said. 

“How do we create stability for the residents we care for?” Martin said. “We create stability for the staff who cares for them.”

The union represents 3,500 CNAs at nursing homes and assisted living facilities throughout the state who have access to benefits such as paid time off and training through SEIU 1199, he said. After the CNAs have been through the apprenticeship training, they will be eligible for other training fund benefits that could help put them through school to become an LPN or RN, union officials said.

That’s exactly what Benitez says she is planning. Benitez worked as a personal care assistant for three years but she wanted to increase her knowledge of health care and expand her possibilities for a lifelong career.

“I knew I wanted to learn more about the medical aspects of caring for people,’ Benitez said. “I do want to become an LPN or RN and I feel like this is a great opportunity to do that.”