Staffing shortage at Utah State Hospital reaches ‘critical state’

Dec 1, 2021, 8:19 PM | Updated: Dec 2, 2021, 4:39 pm
utah staffing shortages...
FILE: The Utah State Hospital in Provo. Photo credit: Spenser Heaps, KSL

SALT LAKE CITY – There’s a staffing crisis at the Utah State Hospital.  Administrators say they are losing employees and doing everything they can to stop it. 

The Utah State Hospital treats the most severe cases of mental illness, including people charged with crimes who have been found not competent to stand trial.  Superintendent Dallas Earnshaw said they have 152 beds set aside for adults, 72 beds for pediatric cases and 124 “forensic beds” for accused criminals.

The beds are, seemingly, always full.

Earnshaw said it’s difficult to blame this on the pandemic because it didn’t appear the hospital was be hurting for workers when the pandemic began. That’s because when shops and businesses started closing, many people turned to the hospital to find work.

“We actually saw an increase in our staffing right at the beginning of the pandemic,” he said. “But after about three to six months, that changed drastically to the other direction.”

Filling “direct-care” positions is hospital’s most pressing problem

Over the course of the pandemic, Earnshaw said 20 percent of their workforce left.  Luckily, he said there isn’t a lot of turnover among the doctors, counselors, nurses and administrators.  But, they are having a hard time filling their “direct-care” positions, which are essential to keeping the hospital running smoothly.

“Housekeeping positions, food service workers … these are the areas where we have a very hard time retaining,” said Earnshaw.  “We are in a critical staffing state, at this point.”

Filling these jobs was always a challenge, even before COVID-19 emerged.  Earnshaw said the hospital has seen a steady increase in their patient population for the past several years, and this isn’t just a problem in Utah.  He said workers at mental-healthcare facilities all over the globe are leaving the profession for less stressful jobs.

However, Earnshaw said they’re trying several different new strategies to bring in more workers.  They’re offering sign-up bonuses, incentives for overtime, special-duty pay for direct-care employees and raises for workers who earn advanced nursing education. 

They’re also bringing college students to the hospital to show them how fulfilling the work can be.

“We have been out to job fairs … used all of the recruiting programs,” he said. “We have worked with colleges, the universities and the schools to try and recruit direct-care staff.”

Even with these new incentives, Earnshaw believes it could take months before they see their staffing situation get back to normal.

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