Oregon’s hospitals are struggling; unsafe staffing to blame, report shows

PORTLAND, Ore. (KGW) — The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 55,000 fewer registered nurses were working in 2021 compared to 2020. And it has to do with a number of findings.

The biggest: violence against healthcare workers on the job. The American Federation of Teachers’ Healthcare Division did a nationwide survey of nurses asking what else may be contributing to this staffing crisis.

About 61% of nurses said the pandemic negatively impacted their mental health and 15% have even had recent thoughts of suicide. And with fewer nurses, the ones who are on the job felt like their workload is that much heavier.

In Oregon specifically, 50% of nurses said they’re caring for too many patients on most of their shifts. About 99% said their units are sometimes or never staffed appropriately.

“We’re dealing with a public health crisis,” said Kevin Mealy, spokesperson for the Oregon Nurses Association. “And it’s only going to get worse over the next few months and years if we let it fester. It’s harder to be a healthcare worker now than it ever has been in the past.”

Mealy said he’s not surprised by what the report found.

“When you don’t have enough nurses, it means it takes longer for you to get into the hospital, it takes longer to get care inside of the hospital and it’s going to take longer to leave the hospital,” said Mealy. “So that means worse care for patients and more likelihood that you’re going to head back into the hospital because your problem wasn’t able to get solved.”

KGW reached out to Providence, Oregon Health & Science University, Kaiser Permanente, PeaceHealth and Legacy Health hospitals for a response. Here’s what some said in statements to KGW:


“OHSU takes seriously our commitment to the safety of our patients and clinical staff, and we value our partnership with the Oregon Nurses Association in maintaining a safe and healthy workplace. Oregonians need OHSU now more than ever, and we thank our dedicated health care workers for continuing to go above and beyond through this unprecedented time to provide our patients with quality, compassionate care.” 

Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems

“Oregon’s hospitals have been saying for over two years that the system is in distress, and a big reason is the nationwide staffing shortage. Patient safety is always our top priority, and as a short term solution we have used contract labor to fill staffing gaps. But we need common sense, long term solutions to rebuild our nursing workforce.”

Legacy Health

“At Legacy Health, our mission starts with the good health of our people. We are sincerely grateful for the contributions that our 14,000 caregivers have made to our patients and our communities through historically challenging times over the last three years.

“We are developing new evidence-based wellness programs that support the physical, psychological and professional safety of our nurses, physicians and staff, and we’ve been recognized for offering wellness programs that engage a variety of diverse employee and patient populations.

“Our nurses are the backbone of our care. We are committed to listening and taking action to ensure we have adequate, safe staffing. We have expanded our personal wellness and support resources for nurses through:

  • Expanded mental health counseling and coaching support
  • More time off through wellness days
  • Increased alternative care coverage, including chiropractic care, acupuncture treatments, massage therapy and more

“We are also taking action to address the national nurse staffing shortage by:

  • Ensuring we offer competitive wages and benefits for our nurses
  • Expanding our residency program with recruiting incentives
  • Hiring for all positions at a record pace to fill vacancies

“We look forward to working with our partners across the industry to address our regional staffing shortage.”

Mealy said the union will be presenting new legislation in Salem that would bring safer staffing practices for hospitals and medical care settings, like enforcing breaks between long work shifts and mandated meal times.

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