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Oregon nurses union floats plan to reduce burnout

Kristyna Wentz-Graff

Oregon’s largest nursing union announced plans Thursday for dealing with a chronic shortage of nursing staff tied to exhaustion.

Leaders of the Oregon Nurses Association said their 15,000 members are stretched to breaking point. A recent survey of nurses at Oregon Health & Science University found 86% reported fatigue, burnout and moral distress, and 60% said they are considering leaving the profession.

Union president Lynda Pond said going back to business-as-usual as the number of COVID-19 virus cases drop is not enough.

“The nurse staffing crisis didn’t start with the COVID-19 or with the vaccine mandates,” she said. “It was created and compounded by hospital executives who have consistently chosen to put profit ahead of patients.”

The union wants to see more nursing scholarships and to end the practice of bringing in traveling nurses. (Traveling nurses are brought into an area when there is a shortage of local nurses. They can make two or three times as much as a local nurse. But their use can worsen staffing shortages when when local nurses then decide to shift to out-of-town work themselves.)

In response, the president of the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems Becky Hultberg acknowledged that caregivers are exhausted and said finding a solution will take lots of collaboration and trust.

“Oregon’s hospitals have been sounding the alarm about the nationwide staffing shortage that is affecting patient care in our state. We know frontline caregivers, and everyone on staff at Oregon hospitals, are exhausted and heartsick after a year and a half of the pandemic,” Hultberg said in a written statement.

“... We agree that this environment is unsustainable. Finding solutions that focus on the health of the communities we serve will take a high degree of trust and collaboration between stakeholders, the executive and legislative branches.”

The union’s plan comes at a time when nurses and other health care workers at Kaiser Permanente hospitals and clinics throughout Oregon may go out on strike. Those workers started voting on Monday on whether to authorize a walkout.

At the same time, hospitals in the region also are struggling with vaccine mandates. Though many health care workers have chosen to get vaccinated, some staff are not and that’s creating staffing problems. Earlier this week, Legacy Health faced that situation, announcing last week it would be closing some labs and urgent care facilities after having to place some unvaccinated staff on leave.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Kristian Foden-Vencil is a veteran journalist/producer working for Oregon Public Broadcasting. He started as a cub reporter for newspapers in London, England in 1988. Then in 1991 he moved to Oregon and started freelancing. His work has appeared in publications as varied as The Oregonian, the BBC, the Salem Statesman Journal, Willamette Week, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, NPR and the Voice of America. Kristian has won awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists and the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors. He was embedded with the Oregon National Guard in Iraq in 2004 and now specializes in business, law, health and politics.
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