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As Utah faces a labor shortage, the state hospital feels the impacts

The superintendent of the state hospital said they're desperately scrambling to find ways to address the day to day treatment patients need.
Paul Richer
The superintendent of the state hospital said they're desperately scrambling to find ways to address the day to day treatment patients need.

Utah State Hospital, the psychiatric facility in Provo, has always dealt with staff shortages. But now with the labor crisis and healthcare worker burnout, it’s the worst it's ever been.

Hospital Superintendent Dallas Earnshaw said over the 37 years he’s worked there, it has never been this bad. Right now, they’re short 20% of their staff with 170 open positions ranging from registered nurses to food service workers and janitorial staff.

It’s a trend that Utah is experiencing statewide. More employers are having difficulty filling positions at their facilities.

Earnshaw said recruitment and retention has been a constant issue with their low wages that start at $13 an hour for direct care positions and $11 an hour for custodial.

Now as more employers increase their pay, they’re not able to keep up. Other hospitals have raised their minimum hourly wage to $15 for entry level positions that don’t require certification.

“The private sector and the public sector are now competing in wages,” Earnshaw said. “And we have to be able to keep up with that to stay competitive, and there is a significant gap between us and the markets.

He said it’s even become a challenge to prepare meals for patients.

“People are crossing over lines of their professional roles to be able to help out in other areas to make sure the patients do receive the care they need,” he said.

He acknowledges that’s unsustainable and can lead to issues like longer lengths of stay for patients or impact health outcomes because of inability to provide proper care.

Earnshaw said they need to find other solutions to incentivize workers to stay, like higher pay.

“We've been trying to use some funding options to maintain our staffing at bare minimums,” he said. “But because of the safety issues that can arise, we've had to have some harder discussions about how long can you really maintain this level before people get burned out?”

He said they won’t be able to solve this issue unless they receive additional funding, until then they're caught in a difficult situation.

Liz Close, executive director of Utah Nurses Association, said there are many things causing the shortage in the healthcare system. For nurses, a big part of that has to do with COVID-19 burnout.

“Nursing was an inherently stressful profession before the pandemic occurred,” Close said in an email. “The pandemic has exacerbated the stress to a level none of us with decades of experience have ever seen — anxiety, sleep issues, feelings of despair, disorientation, and extreme sadness are increasing among nurses since the pandemic.”

She said for healthcare workers, the public health crisis has created an impossible environment without an end in sight.

Earnshaw said he’s working with state leaders to secure more funding to raise pay but nothing has been finalized yet.

“We're all sticking together to get through this difficult challenge that our community is experiencing,” he said.

Ivana is a general assignment reporter
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