Healthcare Emergency Is Under Way, and Healthcare Workers Expected to Solve It

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Yesterday, Governor Kate Brown issued a State of Emergency regarding the healthcare situation across Oregon. Given the dramatic rise of flu cases at the same time as the most recent COVID-19 spikes, they anticipated healthcare facilities and hospitals to be stretched beyond our previous limits. While we have been calling on employers to improve staffing at our hospitals and clinics long before COVID and now RSV. Now, we are in a massive staffing crisis all across the country, and this new order allows for our Oregon employers to disregard many of the staffing standards that we know are necessary for high-quality care. Despite our hospital nurse staffing law, Oregon Health Authority’s (OHA) surveys and reports show healthcare employers disregard the requirements for minimum staffing levels, and now this executive order provides an excuse for them to abandon any pretense of a desire to follow any standards whatsoever. 

OFNHP members are Patient Defenders, and we know that our priority will always be protecting the health and very lives of our patients. Our employers often use this emotional pull to their advantage, expecting that when push comes to shove, we will sacrifice so our patients don’t have to. But isn’t it time that those at the top, those becoming rich because of our labor, start paying the price? Why should our patients have to deal with understaffed hospitals and urgent care facilities? The staffing crisis is the result of intentional decisions made by healthcare administrators to run on “lean staffing models” for years and their disinterest in doing what’s necessary to attract and retain quality staff. As we enter into yet another period of excessive demands on RNs and other healthcare professionals, we are demanding that our employers take action to increase staffing levels if they want to live up to their patient care mandate. According to our colleagues at the Oregon Nurses Association (ONA), a full 99% of nurses report understaffing, 92% report missing breaks, and 70% of healthcare professionals report anxiety and depression because of this overwork. Our own surveys have proven that the vast majority of our workers are asked to work past their breaks, are working in dramatically understaffed environment, and about half of our RNs have reported considering leaving the field entirely. These are the situations that create the staffing crisis because they spurn turnover, which then, subsequently, affects patient care. According to AFT’s own staffing report, one in five healthcare workers have quit their jobs since the pandemic began, and this all stems from a lack of support. 

As you have heard, this new mandate from the Governor means that there will be ethical rationing of care at our hospitals and that we need to increase the number of beds available by at least 40. From placing sick patients in rooms that should house mothers and their newborn babies to shoving additional patients in rooms built safely for one, and staffing this “extra capacity” with folks who do not know our communities and our patients, these are the conversations happening all over the state this week. We anticipate being pushed past our staffing matrixes, which violates our union contract. Yet again, our members are expected to carry the burden of caring for our patients rather than the employers who have exploited the pandemic as an excuse to understaff for years. 

We are demanding that our employers to bargain with our members over potential changes in workplace conditions, implement “crisis levels of care” standards, pursue every possible route to maintain normal staffing standards, including an expansion of premium pay incentives, and ensure that our staffing committees are respected.

We will be reaching out with more information, as well as communicating with the public about what is at stake. It is in the interest of our patients and community to speak up about what happens to care when understaffing persists in a healthcare crisis, and we will be giving the community a channel for their outrage. And, more than anything, we need to be in solidarity with each other. This kind of crisis is a moment when people need the care and compassion they get from their friends, family, and coworkers. Now is a moment when people need their union, and we intend to be there every step of the way. Stay tuned for a tele town hall that will be in the works so that people can share experiences and help to build solutions.

We will be reaching out with more information, as well as communicating with the public about what is at stake. It is in the interest of our patients and community to speak up about what happens to care when understaffing persists in a healthcare crisis, and we will be giving the community a channel for their outrage. And, more than anything, we need to be in solidarity with each other. This kind of crisis is a moment when people need the care and compassion they get from their friends, family, and coworkers. Now is a moment when people need their union, and we intend to be there every step of the way. Stay tuned for a tele town hall that will be in the works so that people can share experiences and help to build solutions.