The Oregon State Hospital is calling on the National Guard to stem a staffing crisis that has ballooned in recent weeks, with one out of three of the nursing staff on the Salem campus out on leave.
Activating the National Guard was the final step in a five-stage crisis staffing plan hospital administrators developed last fall after a COVID outbreak on the hospital campus left more employees unable to work.
Hospital administrators made the request through the state’s Emergency Operations Center this week, seeking 30 guard registered nurses to work shifts, hospital spokeswoman Rebekah Gipson-King said. She said the hospital hasn’t yet received a response.
Major Stephen Bomar, spokesman for the Oregon Military Department, said Gov. Kate Brown will make the call to activate the National Guard. He said the department is routinely coordinating and planning with other agencies to provide support. Currently, the National Guard is seeing some of its capacity freed up as the state winds down mass vaccination sites, he said.
Pat Allen, Oregon Health Authority director, is also asking managers from other departments within his agency to volunteer for shifts at the hospital. That request was the fourth step in the crisis staffing plan.
Managers who volunteer would take on duties including serving patient meals and escorting patients to activities.
“OHA has exhausted all other staffing options for the hospital’s Salem campus, and our circumstances are dire. We have reached the point where we must come together as an agency to support our sister division,” Allen wrote in an email to Oregon Health Authority managers Tuesday.
Gipson-King said the hospital activated both steps this week because of a significant increase in the number of people on leave. She did not immediately have information about whether any OHA managers had volunteered for shifts.
“We are basically using all of the tools in our toolkit to make sure we have adequate staffing,” Gipson-King said.
Ben Morris, spokesman for SEIU Local 503, said the current budget for the hospital doesn’t even remotely cover its staffing needs. He said that staffing at the hospital has decreased while the number of patients with acute needs has increased. To overcome the shortage, the hospital has relied on overtime with staff working 18-hour shifts several days, he said.
“The Legislature needs to budget for the needs of the Oregon State hospital and they’re not close to that right now,” he said.
Morris said SEIU Local 503 represents about 1,800 workers at the hospital including nursing as well as cleaning and food service staff. He didn’t have a specific figure for how much more money should be directed toward the hospital but pointed out that the Legislature has an unprecedented amount of money from federal stimulus money.
The hospital reported 20% of its nursing staff were on COVID-related leave in late April. That number stood at 33% last week.
Gipson-King said she didn’t have an explanation for the increase.
Employees may take COVID-related leave if they are ill, need to care for someone who is sick with COVID or have childcare arrangements disrupted due to the pandemic.
Last week, 412 nursing employees were on leave for at least one-quarter of their scheduled work time, according to a May 20 presentation hospital superintendent Dolly Matteucci gave the hospital’s advisory board.
The Salem hospital has capacity for 554 patients and was at 94% capacity as of April, the presentation said.
Gipson-King said most of those employees out requested leave because of care responsibilities.
Hospital employees told The Oregonian/OregonLive in April that some employees without children were taking time off intended for childcare, and said the hospital does not check whether employees have children.
Gipson-King said the hospital can’t verify whether employees who take care leave have children because of “privacy,” though she could not immediately cite a specific law or policy the practice was based on.
She said hospital supervisors have been contacting employees on leave to see if alternate schedules could help them return to work.
Matteucci emailed hospital managers Tuesday notifying them they would be required to work weekend shifts starting Memorial Day weekend through the Fourth of July to help stem the staffing crisis.
“We understand the hardship this may cause you and your families. We have exhausted all other staffing options for the hospital’s Salem campus. This includes calling people to see if they can work different schedules, offering overtime, hiring more temporary workers, signing additional agency contracts and keeping our Emergency Staffing Plan activated at Wave 3,” Matteucci wrote in an email.