Oregon State Hospital recruiters are visiting job fairs, purchasing radio and television spots and posting openings on job boards for professional organizations.
Even so, 20% of the the state-run mental health hospital’s budgeted positions are vacant. That’s 373 openings in a workforce that has 1,863 people at full strength.
Lawmakers on the House Interim Behavioral Health Committee heard the figures on Thursday in a presentation from Dolly Matteucci, superintendent of Oregon State Hospital.
The Salem-based state hospital has come under scrutiny on different fronts. Those include a court order to make timely admissions of patients who need treatment to stand trial for criminal charges and a finding by federal regulators of multiple violations regarding patient care and safety at its Junction City campus.
The hospital has struggled to hire people during the COVID-19 pandemic, which decimated the health care industry and burned out workers at the hospital as well as private providers across the spectrum.
However, the short staffing at Oregon State Hospital comes even as it embarks on more hiring enabled through a $10 million appropriation that Legislature authorized in 2021 for nearly 100 new positions and converting temporary positions into permanent ones. Effective May 1, the state hospital started to hire people for 94 new positions to its workforce. The Legislature’s appropriation also allows the hospital to convert 134 temporary positions into permanent positions. In all, that represents 228 new permanent positions.
Hiring and retaining employees “continues to be a great challenge,” Matteucci told lawmakers.
The bulk of openings – 259 of them – are nurses and mental health therapists who also provide direct care to patients.
“As you all are acutely aware, the market remains competitive,” Matteucci said, noting that nurses have opportunities elsewhere for recruitment bonuses.
To bridge the gap, the state hospital continues to rely on outside contractors. The hospital has 114 contracted staff, most of them nurses.
That option, though, has an expiration date because out-of-state nurses with emergency authorizations to work in Oregon will need to apply for a state license by July 1. Matteucci said it’s encouraging out-of-state nurses to do so.
Twenty-one Oregon National Guard still assist the hospital too in areas like food services and support for medical staff.
One bright spot is that 72 temporary employees are in the process of converting to permanent status. When that’s complete, it will reduce the overall vacancy rate, Matteucci said.
Rep. Chris Hoy, D-Salem, whose district includes the hospital’s main campus in the state capital city, said he often hears concerns about working at the facility.
“My perception and one that I hear often is that there’s at least a perceived and perhaps real view that working at the state hospital is not always a safe place and it’s not a pleasant place to work,” he said.
He asked how the hospital can change that perception as it relates to recruiting staff.
Matteucci said the work at the hospital is rewarding but also difficult and challenging when considering the number of admissions and herculean task of developing plans with staff across a unit.
Matteucci said it is absolutely true that there can be “violence in the work environment.” Patients may try to harm themselves or other patients or staff as a direct result of their mental illness, Matteucci said.
The hospital has a strong support network and safety committee that looks for ways to improve and help staff. The challenges of COVID-19 have made it more stressful, she said.
But it’s a long-term goal – not one with a quick solution.
“I am confident we will get there,” Matteucci said. “It is not a sprint. It is more of a marathon.”