Oregon hospital rolls out emergency plan with more than 500 workers on leave in April

More than 500 Oregon State Hospital staff said they have taken leave since April 1 for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting the Salem-based psychiatric facility to roll out multiple initiatives to reduce workforce strain.

As of April 18, 539 workers had used sick, vacation and other leave this month, although some are now back at work, according to data shared with Becker's. This represents about 23 percent of the hospital's total workforce of more than 2,300, which includes nurses, contract staff and others in Salem and at the hospital's smaller satellite campus in Junction City.

Employees have expressed concerns about staffing and the number of employees on leave, citing increasingly dangerous working conditions, exhaustion and low morale, according to The Oregonian.

"It's all been like sticking your finger in the holes in the dam," Kimberly Thoma, an Oregon State Hospital employee and SEIU Local 503 union official, told the newspaper. "People are working double shifts, being mandated — they're working so many hours to try and cover this need." 

Hospital officials acknowledged concerns about staffing.

They said leaders have been partnering with staff to ensure adequate staffing and have approached the issue from several angles with an emergency staffing plan. 

Efforts include redeploying staff to units with the most patient care needs. This month, the entire nursing leadership team began working on these units, hospital officials said. 

Several organizational improvement initiatives have been delayed, and attention has been shifted to a unit-based treatment model so staff can focus on patient care and fill in for nurses who are on leave, the hospital said. 

Hiring and onboarding for relief positions has been speeded up, and hospital officials said they also have hired as many contract agency nurses as possible and discussed the possible deployment of managers with its parent agency, the Oregon Health Authority.

Talks with the National Guard have begun in case hospital officials need to deploy more staff, and managers are talking with staff who are out on parental leave to discuss how to support staff, including possible shift accommodations, the hospital said.    

As of April 17, more than 180 workers were away from their jobs at the hospital because they or a family member are medically fragile — or they can't find child care, according to The Oregonian

Union members said they are concerned the hospital's emergency staffing plan has created a less safe environment by putting workers with limited experience in protecting patients and staff on units, the newspaper reported, citing a petition calling for administrators to address the growing staffing problem.

The hospital said it is monitoring the numbers daily and meets with the AFSCME-RN and SEIU unions representing its workers to collaborate on strategies and solutions.

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