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Temp workers needed for State Hygienic Lab
‘Access to a nimble temporary workforce is vital’
IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa is seeking help hiring temporary workers for the State Hygienic Lab that — like many other industries — is facing a labor shortage stretching its staff thin as it aims to process an average of 1,000 tests a day for things like COVID-19, newborn and maternal screenings and tuberculosis.
The UI earlier this month issued a call for proposals from temporary staffing agencies capable of finding workers to up to 10 positions “depending on the volume of testing needed.”
“Suppliers should have adequate resources and candidates available to respond to sudden increases in needs,” according to the request for proposals, due Thursday.
This isn’t the first time the UI has tapped a temporary staffing agency to help fill its State Hygienic Lab needs. But pandemic-driven market forces creating worker shortages in nearly every state and in nearly every industry has exacerbated the challenge.
“At this time, the agencies that we have used in the past are not able to provide temporary staffing for the roles that we need to fill for our high-volume, fast-paced clinical lab environment,” UI spokesman Christopher Brewer said. “These positions are specialized roles that require technical experience and/or previous lab experience.”
State lab workers also must meet U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards for high-complexity testing.
“At the time that the bid was issued, the State Hygienic Lab had four open temporary positions,” Brewer said. “However that need will increase to 10 or more positions depending on the volume of testing needed.”
The State Hygienic Lab since 1904 has been serving all of Iowa through disease detection, environmental monitoring and newborn and maternal screening — most recently finding itself on the front lines of Iowa’s COVID-19 response through test processing and test-kit delivery.
Since the start of the pandemic, the lab has processed 1.6 million COVID-19 tests, analyzing 7,647 a day and 38,077 a week at its pandemic peak in 2020 — when it counted 240 total employees.
In October, the lab averaged 1,000 tests a day, not just for COVID-19 but newborn and maternal screening, serology, virology, mycology, bacteriology, mycobacteriology, parasitology, environmental microbiology and environmental testing.
The lab is headquartered at the UI Research Park in Coralville. In the current budget year, the university is getting $4.8 million in state appropriations for its operation. Lawmakers last year denied the UI’s ask for $1 million more to help retain and recruit workers.
“The onset of the pandemic and the need to retain staff and recruit additional talented analysts was never more apparent than throughout this pandemic, when over 1 million COVID-19 specimens were tested by multiple methods,” according to the university’s 2021 request, which the Legislature denied. “Salary increases are critical as the statistics show that the public health lab workforce is aging and retiring, with fewer new professionals seeking public health labs as a place of employment.”
In addition to its Coralville home base, the state lab has testing facilities associated with the Iowa Laboratories Facility in Ankeny and the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory in Milford.
The state lab currently has 205 full- and part-time workers, plus 13 temporary staffers across its three lab locations.
“Through numerous testing surges in the last few years, our staff have done a remarkable job under less than ideal circumstances,” Brewer said. “Our current staff are stretched thin in some areas, and access to a nimble temporary workforce is vital to meet the ever-changing testing demands.”
The request for proposals from temporary staffing agencies notes the UI presently needs help filling a few specific jobs: environmental lab analyst, clinical lab analyst, and lab technicians.
- The environmental lab analyst position, according to a job description, requires at least a bachelor’s degree in chemistry or related field and involves preparing and analyzing complex environmental or biological samples.
- The clinical lab analyst also requires a bachelor’s degree in microbiology or related field, lab experience and preferably a graduate degree. The position performs CDC-regulated testing for infectious diseases.
- The lab tech role requires at least a year of lab experience and involves cleaning laboratories, distributing lab supplies and taking phone calls about specimens.
While seeking to meet the lab’s needs on a temporary basis, the UI continues to look for permanent hires as well — like a specialist for its newborn screening program, lab manager for its newborn screening lab, chemical threat and environmental lab specialist, environmental lab analyst and several lab technicians.
Compensation for the jobs can range from the mid-$40,000s to more than $100,000 a year.
“We continue to advertise for open positions because of vacancies, including retirements, from regular permanent positions,” Brewer said. “These are ongoing needs, and temporary staff help bridge gaps when we lose regular/permanent staff.”
Iowa’s public universities — like many employers — have been struggling to meet their workforce needs, corroborating national reports on a pandemic-incited labor shortage.
Although recent job reports from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show thousands are entering the workforce, the country still has a daunting worker crevasse to overcome — with 10.1 million open jobs and 5.8 million unemployed workers.
“If every unemployed person in the country found a job, we would still have 4 million open jobs,” according to the Chamber of Commerce, which found Iowa among the many states with a meaningful worker shortage.
Looking at lab workers specifically, a shortage existed even before COVID-19 due to a decline in relevant academic programs and a rising rate of retirements and resignations despite growing demand across health care, according to Medical Laboratory Observer — a publication connecting lab professionals with peer-reviewed articles and resources.
Among questions potential staffing agencies have asked in preparing to respond to the university’s request for proposals are those asking how quickly the UI would award a contract and expect work to begin.
“As soon as possible,” according to the UI, which also is in the process of expanding the state lab using a CDC grant. That $12.2 million project will add on a 7,330-square-foot, two-level addition for a biosafety level lab.
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