New staff cuts Oregon State Hospital overtime

From the Salem Statesman Journal, July 24, 2010

Exhausted employees start to see improvement from hiring blitz

Nearly 50 new front-line staffers have been added at the Oregon State Hospital via a fast-track hiring process, easing a staffing crisis at the chronically understaffed psychiatric facility in Salem, officials said.

And more relief is on the way.

The hospital’s goal is to hire 35 more direct-care staffers by the end of September, bringing the total influx of new workers to about 85, said Richard Harris, director of the state Addictions and Mental Health division.

“It has taken combined efforts of a lot of different departments in the hospital to make this work, so I am saying bravo,” Harris said. “But I’m also saying let’s keep pushing it because institutions like this have a way of going back to old ways pretty easily.”

Rank-and-file hospital employees expressed mixed sentiments about the infusion of front-line personnel, known as mental-health therapists and technicians in hospital parlance.

“We’re moving in the right direction, and staff morale is up,” said Brant Johnson, a mental health therapist who serves as a non-voting member on the hospital’s citizen-led advisory board.

Earlier this year, mandatory overtime soared to record levels at OSH, prompting an outpouring of employee frustration and rage. In April, workers staged a rally on the hospital grounds to protest mandatory overtime and sluggish hiring of new front-line staffers.

Johnson, who participated in the rally, said the recent wave of hiring has partially defused employee animosity.

“The mandates are down quite a bit, and the staff isn’t as down in the mouth and angry,” he said. “They’re getting to go home and rest a little bit more, and I think that’s helping out a lot.”

Even so, mandated overtime remains a sore point for hospital employees. Two veteran workers told the Statesman Journal that they haven’t seen much, if any, relief from mandatory overtime.

As they tell it, the 50-employee infusion has been offset by retirements, resignations and dismissals. They also note that many of the newly hired workers haven’t started duty yet.

Of the 49 mental health therapists and technicians hired in recent weeks, 21 have started working, and the rest are completing training and orientation, officials said. Rapid hiring will continue in the weeks ahead, Harris said.

“We have 24 more individuals in the process of criminal background and reference checks,” he said. “The ultimate goal here is to have (a total) of 85 new people on board by the end of September. I think we’re going to make that.”

To speed up hiring of front-line personnel, the hospital is using a process that previously proved effective in expanding the ranks of OSH nurses.

“Removing some of the more bureaucratic requirements has allowed us to hire people in a shorter period of time,” Harris said. “We have reduced by half the amount of time compared to the past process.”

Last year, state legislators boosted the hospital’s two-year budget for 2009-11 to $324 million, a 31 percent increase that provided funding to hire 527 new employees. The massive staffing expansion was set up to occur in waves of hiring, coinciding with phased opening of new hospital facilities.

However, hiring lagged in the front-line ranks, inciting employee anger.

The April rally marked a turning point.

Since then, Harris has prodded hospital officials to jump start the front-line hiring program and ease the mandatory overtime burdens on staffers.

“One of the things that always sort of amazed me was how come we couldn’t hire people in an economy where you had such a high unemployment rate,” he said last week.

The number of double shifts imposed on front-line staffers has declined in recent weeks, according to hospital data. The hospital recorded 171 mandates in the Friday-through-Sunday time period of June 18-20. By comparison, 58 mandates were recorded during the Friday-through-Sunday period of July 16-18.

Harris also has been encouraged by recent reductions in employee sick calls, as well as a spike in voluntary overtime.

“It was really encouraging to see that voluntary overtime came up in this last month because that’s a sign that employees are looking to work extra shifts as opposed to being told they must be there,” he said.

Harris has assumed a more active and direct role in hospital leadership since the April 2 forced resignation of superintendent Roy Orr. Orr was forced out by state human services director Bruce Goldberg and Harris. They said new leadership was necessary to speed up the pace of change at OSH.

OSH’s accelerated hiring campaign comes as a new state hospital complex is being built to replace the 127-year-old existing facility, which was deemed unsafe and obsolete by state-hired consultants in 2005.

The new hospital is scheduled to open in phases. The first patient-occupied section of the new hospital is slated to open late this year, and the entire 620-bed facility is scheduled to open by late next year.