A car drives past Island Nursing Home on Route 15 in Deer Isle on December 21, 2020. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

A Deer Isle nursing home is requiring employees to not disparage the home if they want retention bonuses ahead of a planned late-October closure and rejected strategies from the state on ways to stay open.

The Island Nursing Home was the first of three facilities to announce they would be closing by the end of October after the COVID-19 pandemic put additional strain on a workforce that has long struggled with low wages and staff retention. The abrupt closing rocked and upset a remote community reliant on it as one of just three remaining nursing homes in Hancock County.

The facility has been quiet since it announced its closing on Aug. 30, roughly two months before its expected closure. But the home is going to great lengths to convince employees to stay on ahead of the departure of contract staff that will require the home to immediately discharge residents, showing how dire the staffing challenges are in Maine, something industry experts fear could worsen as the pandemic continues.

Island Nursing Home board President Ronda Dodge said Wednesday on an Island Health and Wellness Foundation podcast the facility is expected to lose 13 contract staff by Sept. 22. That will leave the home with 780 hours, or 20 full-time employee positions, unfilled, requiring the 50 percent of residents be discharged if slots are not filled. State rules require one direct care provider for every five residents during the day and one per every 15 patients on the night shift.

“Does that mean that the patients are all at risk? No,” Dodge said, adding the sudden loss of staff would trigger an emergency closing status allowing the facility to more quickly place residents still in the home. Dodge also said some have refused placement, saying they do not believe the home is closing.

The home has cited long-standing challenges in attracting staff and finding housing for them, causing it to rely on contract workers. The community has since tried to rally around the home, with local lawmakers calling for a solution and residents uncertain about where loved ones may end up.

It was one of 96 long-term care facilities to get an award for homes documenting pandemic losses, according to Maine Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson Jackie Farwell, but it is unclear what the home received.

The department met with nursing home leadership to discuss ways to prevent closing, such as working with families to transfer patients to other facilities or allow the residential population to decline, Farwell said. Dodge said on Friday the home would not be able to meet staffing requirements even with a reduction in patient levels.

Employees that do wish to stay were offered a voluntary retention award agreement guaranteeing up to eight hours of additional pay if they work 40 hours a week, although they lose the benefit if they have unscheduled absences, are fired or quit. It requires signees to agree to not make any “defamatory or derogatory statements” on social media or other outlets about management and staff, the closing itself or the operations of the facility.

Signees waive their right to a jury trial for any litigation coming from the signing of the agreement, and the home said it would stop providing the benefit and may sue any employees who break the non-disparagement clause.

Facilities usually offer retention bonuses to higher-paid staff to keep them on, said David Webbert, an employment lawyer and managing partner at the firm Johnson, Webbert & Garvan, who said it was unusual for them to be offered to rank-and-file staff. He said the agreement should be modified to include a good-faith criticism clause, otherwise workers could be discouraged from coming forward for fear of retribution.

“Things can happen between now and [the closing],” he said. “The non-disparagement agreement does not take into account the importance of employees offering feedback.”

Dodge pushed back, saying it is meant to discourage “unnecessary, inaccurate and uninformed discussion on social media and elsewhere that neither serves nor protects the interests of the residents, families and staff.” She said language allowing employees to participate in legal investigations and court cases is meant to encompass whistleblowing.

An Island Nursing Home staffer, who agreed to speak to the Bangor Daily News on the condition of anonymity, said the agreement made them “uncomfortable” and worried they would be held liable after speaking openly about the closing home. They said they were “blindsided” by the closing after management told them two days prior the facility would remain open.

“We knew staffing was bad,” she said. “But they never mentioned we might have to close because of it.”