Worker shortage at area hospitals as COVID-19 affecting staff

Hundreds of job openings remain unfilled at the North Olympic Peninsula’s three public hospitals as COVID-19 fills beds and takes out health care professionals.

Olympic Medical Center, Jefferson Healthcare hospital and Forks Community Hospital (FCH) officials are grappling with a combined 349 openings, including 236 at OMC, 113 at Jefferson Healthcare and 38 at FCH, they said this week.

Jennifer Burkhardt, OMC’s legal counsel and human resources director, said the Port Angeles hospital is not alone, citing 488 vacant positions at St. Michael Medical Center in Silverdale and 1,342 at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle.

“While our numbers are large and we continue to recruit as much as we can, of course, and devote a lot of efforts to that, there is a workforce staffing crisis across the state and the nation, and we’re subject to that as well,” she told participants Wednesday at a Clallam County Economic Development Council presentation.

She said the OMC openings include 40 that require solely a high school diploma or high-school-equivalency certification.

Tim Pfarr, spokesperson for the Washington State Hospital Association, said Thursday the shortage of hospital-based registered nurses statewide is 6,000 RNs.

At OMC, there are 72 open nursing positions among that staff of 375 RNs, a 19 percent gap.

OMC’s record worker shortfall — 14 percent of its 1,911-person workforce — is being addressed, Burkhardt said, by employees covering vacant positions and, for the all-important registered nursing staff, hiring costly but vital temporary travelling nurses.

They are filling 20-25 of the RN vacancies, Burkhardt said.

“We do have travelers in a number of areas including respiratory therapy and physical therapy.

“These have always been hard-to-recruit positions just because they do require a specialized skill and training,” she said.

“During the pandemic, it’s been exacerbated.”

Traveling nurses’ hourly rates can approach $200.

“I don’t think our hourly rate is that high, but it’s higher than it should be, and we pay a premium for those travel services, but when we’re trying to provide patient care, it’s been absolutely essential,” Burkhardt said.

Of Jefferson Healthcare hospital’s 113 open positions, 20 are for open RN positions, hospital spokesperson Amy Yaley said in an email. There are 803 employees and 12 percent of hospital positions vacant.

Jefferson Healthcare hospital Commissioner Kees Kolff said Thursday the shortage has been made worse by staff being sick from COVID-19.

“The number of positive employees we’ve had is scary,” Kolff said.

Ten employees tested positive for COVID-19 between Jan. 10-13, he said.

“All we need is a couple of them out, and you’re just really hampered. It just throws your coverage and your schedule off completely.”

“There are times when we have enough beds but we don’t have the staff. An unstaffed bed doesn’t do you any good.”

He said it’s fortunate Jefferson Healthcare has agreements with other hospitals such as OMC, which has transferred two patients to the Port Townsend hospital. Kolff did not know if the switches were related to COVID-19.

“This just shows the importance of collaboration between local institutions,” he said,

Jefferson Healthcare has employed traveling providers in the emergency room, but the competition is stiff for their services, he said.

Forks Community Hospital had 38 job openings as of Thursday, of which 26 were open clinical positions. Nine were non-clinical openings and three were open provider slots, CEO Heidi Anderson said in an email.

Three of the clinical positions were for RNs.

“We have a couple of travel nurses,” Anderson said. “We also utilize nurses who are in more administrative positions.”

Burkhardt said OMC filled a record number of 811 positions in 2021, of which more than 50 percent were taken by internal applicants.

Each year the hospital has added about 50 new employees, she added.

“With all the challenges we have faced, our community continues to support OMC, and we are really grateful,” Burkhardt said.

“The brightest spot of all has been the amazing success of the OMC Foundation.”

Foundation Chair Karen Rogers and Executive Director Bruce Skinner also gave presentations on Wednesday.

“In all areas, all of our events, we have set record amounts of revenue during COVID,” Skinner said, adding that a month ago, OMC received $540,000 from the foundation, its largest donation ever.

Burkhardt said surgical services employees, including nurses, were redeployed to other units such as intensive care after non-urgent surgeries were restricted a number of weeks ago, largely due to the spike in the omicron variant.

“It’s very hard on staff who are working extra shifts who are trying to keep the hospital stable and functioning and just doing a great job,” she said.

“No one expected a two-year pandemic.”

Burkhardt said OMC’s finances will likely end 2021 with a slight margin of 1 percent-2 percent.

Burkhardt said foundation funding, along with Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money and provider relief funds, have been key to that stability.

Hospital board chair John Nutter said during the presentation that the hospital has consistently been treating two to eight COVID patients over the last two years, a number that increased to about 10 as of Wednesday.

“We have the facilities to take care of those people,” Nutter said, adding their care is labor-intensive.

“What we don’t have is the staff,” he said.

“The big challenge right now is, so many of our staff members, you know, those front-line workers, they caught omicron themselves or they have family members that have tested positive, and so, our big challenge right now is finding the staff.”

As of late last week, according to staffing models, two nurses are available for the emergency room on Saturday night.

“That’s obviously not enough to run an entire ER,” Nutter said.