Life Care Center employees search for jobs after branch closure

After about eight years with the Life Care Center of the San Juan Islands, Claudia Piff is looking for a new job.

“It’s a hardship,” said Piff, a Licensed Practical Nurse. “I don’t think a doctor’s office could pay what Life Care Center was able to pay per hour.”

Piff, like the center’s other roughly 60 employees, will be out of a job by Nov. 13, which is the facility’s official last day. The center’s once 35 patients, are now down to less than five, said Piff, and the staff has been cut in half.

The closing of the center was announced in September when a representative from the for-profit corporation said the Friday Harbor branch suffered financial hardship.

The majority of laid-off employees, according to Piff, were roughly ages 35 and older. On an island, with limited employers, starting a new career during a time when, most that age, are more established, isn’t the easiest.

Minnie Knych, the local representative of the Northwest Workforce Council, helps the unemployed of all ages find new jobs, including a program that re-employs those 55 and older. Right now, she’s working extra shifts to help laid-off Life Care staff.

“I helped one Life Care employee get her job there when she first started,” said Knych. “It’s a great disappointment because she thought she’d work there until retirement.”

Knych said she’s helped about a dozen former Life Care employees, so far, in job searches, updating resumes and finding training to earn different certifications. Piff said she only knows one former Life Care employee who is considering moving off the island for new employment.

Piff’s parents opened a nursing home on the island in the 1960s, in the building currently used as Life Care. The career nurse is now considering taking a job at an Anacortes facility, where she will work a few consecutive, longer shifts, stay overnight and return to the island.

The facilities she is considering — Fidalgo Rehab Center, San Juan Assisted Center, or Rosario Assisted living — are owned by Jim Roe, who is offering compensation for island commuters. The facilities’ Chief Financial Officer David Kiefer said Roe is offering to pay for walk-on ferry tickets for island employees, as well as housing for overnight stays at local hotels or the facilities, after roughly 12-hour shifts.

“They need jobs,” said Kiefer. “It just makes sense.”

As San Juan’s only skilled nursing facility closes, those local higher wage positions disappear too. A recent report from the San Juan County Department of Community Development states that the average income in the county is $23,000 to $31,000. That’s at least about $10,000 less than LPNs like Piff would make, on average.

However, many of the center’s staff, said Piff, have been able to find local work, like at the Village at the Harbor, an assisted living facility in Friday Harbor, and the county’s new home health care provider, Glacier Peak Healthcare.

Four Certified Nursing Assistants will also be employed at a new adult living facility off Roche Harbor Road, created by former Life Care CNA Darby Lawson.

Lawson’s last day at the center was Oct. 24, but by early December she plans to open Autumn Meadows in the former Dragonfly Inn.

“I can provide care the way it’s meant to be provided; in a home, where you trust the staff and you become family,” she said.

Adult living facilities, said Lawson, provide assistance with daily activities — like bathing and eating — with an on-call nurse, to a maximum of six patients. They live in a home, rather than an institution like Life Care Center or Village at the Harbor.

Lawson owned and operated three similar facilities on the island from 1995 to 2007, before closing due to low Medicaid reimbursements.

“We couldn’t provide quality care,” said Lawson. “It’s the same song and dance.”

Similar financial shortfalls have been linked to the Life Care Center’s closing, though executive staff have not confirmed that.

This time, Lawson will only accept private insurance through her adult living facility. If she receives enough, she said she could possibly open a few spots for Medicaid patients. Medicaid is the free or reduced insurance for the low-income and disabled, funded by state and federal governments.

For Piff, looking for a new job has been trying, but not as much as the change Life Care residents are facing.

“We’re just trying to assist all the residents with their needs,” said Piff. “They are very nervous going to a place they’ve never been, away from family members.”

To inquire about an opening at Lawson’s new facility, Autumn Meadows, contact or 360-378-4973. To contact Knych for employment help, call 360-378-4662.

Contributed image/Darby Lawson                                Darby Lawson’s adult living facility, Autumn Meadow, is expected to open by early December.

Contributed image/Darby Lawson Darby Lawson’s adult living facility, Autumn Meadow, is expected to open by early December.