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Saving Gracedale: Northampton County Council approves $10 million for staff bonuses

Allentown Morning Call logo Allentown Morning Call 5/20/2022 Anthony Salamone, The Morning Call
Northampton County Council approved $14 million Thursday night in federal-pandemic money to Gracedale nursing home, about $1.5 million less than county Executive Lamont McClure had sought. © The Morning Call/TNS Northampton County Council approved $14 million Thursday night in federal-pandemic money to Gracedale nursing home, about $1.5 million less than county Executive Lamont McClure had sought.

Northampton County Council approved a plan to provide $10 million in bonuses for Gracedale employees and new hires to help with retention as the publicly run nursing home continues to battle labor shortages.

County Executive Lamont McClure, in what he termed a plan to save Upper Nazareth Township long-term care facility, sought council’s approval Thursday night to provide the bonuses, which will be paid as $2,500 increments in annual pay boosts up to four years.

The money will come from the $30.3 million the county received in COVID-19 federal relief funding. In all, council approved $14 million for Gracedale, which has been struggling since the pandemic broke in early 2020 to keep staff and operations going.

“We’ve got to stop the bleeding,” McClure said, “and that’s what this is about.”

Council’s approval did not come without some questions or comments aimed at McClure and other county officials. The board spent much of its three-hour meeting discussing the funding, which was broken down into five resolutions requiring separate votes.

“I don’t see why we rush this money out the door,” said Lori Vargo Heffner, council president. “You can always come back and ask for more.”

McClure’s proposal offers pay incentives that could amount to $10,000 up to four years, for new hires and existing staff, in $5 million buckets each. Council deliberated mostly on the bonuses for existing workers and the new help, but it voted against the money for at least three top administrators.

“It’s tough to be the bad guy, but clearly Gracedale was in a bad predicament,” Councilmember John Goffredo said. “I think it’s wrong to give bonuses to the administration when you are to be running things smoothly. We’re sending the wrong message.”

Council voted 5-4 on his motion to exclude the supervisors.

Councilmember John Brown, who was the only “no” vote on bonuses, asked whether McClure would change course if the program does not produce results.

“The question I have is how are you going to measure success,” said Brown, the one-time county executive, “if you are still bleeding employees and the program is not working.”

McClure said administrators can monitor the success or failure, but the need is crucial now for more workers. He said 450 employees currently are serving about 400 residents. The long-term care facility, the largest in the state under one roof, can serve 688 clients.

The numbers have been down significantly, but because of staff shortages, Gracedale has limited admissions, despite supervisors having said there is a waiting list for new residents.

The county has said Gracedale cannot raise its census until it increases staffing, and officials have wrestled with ways to provide more care since the pandemic. Just as hospitals have faced staffing shortages, many nursing homes, assisted living facilities and senior care facilities across the Lehigh Valley and the country are having difficulty finding enough employees.

And with hospitals offering bonuses of $20,000 or more for nurses, and for-profit nursing homes paying more, nursing homes such as Gracedale are facing hiring and retention issues. The federal COVID-19 vaccine requirement for medical staff also cut into Gracedale’s staff.

Council also voted to $2 million on a day care facility at Gracedale, which McClure has pushed for months. He said adding child care at the Upper Nazaerth Nazareth Township facility would provide an incentive toward recruiting and retaining nurses and support staff.

The day care will be on Gracedale property but operated by a private company, Learning Locomotion. Representatives from the business presented council with details of its plans for the child care operation.

Council also approved spending $1 million on capital improvements, and the nine-member board also agreed to provide $1 million to pay for temporary or “agency” nurses. McClure had sought $2.5 million, but Heffner moved to cut most of the funding.

“You can come back and ask for more money; we have it until 2024,” Heffner said. Her amendment to the temporary nurses resolution passed 6-3.

McClure has dubbed efforts toward the nursing home “Saving Gracedale Again.” More than a decade ago, county officials attempted to sell the-then financially struggling home. McClure, while on council, was a leading voice against the move, and a referendum effort he endorsed stopped a sale.

On Thursday night, county officials and council didn’t bring up a possible sale, but it’s clear the clock is ticking on whether the additional money will solve the crisis.

“We really have to try something,” said councilmember Ronald Heckman, who has spent years working in human services and serves as liaison on Gracedale’s advisory board. “This is a make or break situation with the home.”

Gracedale’s operating revenue is about $90.6 million, according to the county’s 2022 budget, with more than 50%, or about $47 million, in personnel costs. As one of 17 county-owned care homes in the state, Gracedale, like Cedarbrook in Lehigh County, houses people who can’t afford private nursing homes.

Morning Call journalist Anthony Salamone can be reached at

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