Nurses file staffing complaint against St. Charles

Buddy system requires nurses to watch over too many patients

By Markian Hawryluk, The Bulletin, @markianhawryluk

The Oregon Nurses Association has filed a formal staffing complaint with the Oregon Health Authority, alleging St. Charles Bend is violating staffing rules by requiring working nurses to cover each other’s patients during meal and rest breaks.

Nurses on the medical-surgical floor typically care for five to six patients at a time, the group said. But use of the so-called buddy system routinely requires nurses to cover double that number of patients.

“St. Charles is consistently violating its own staffing plans, state law and basic common sense,” said John Nangle, an emergency department nurse at St. Charles and chair of the nurses’ bargaining unit at the hospital. “Simply put, it’s impossible for one nurse to effectively care for 10 patients at a time.”

Oregon law requires hospitals to detail in their staffing plans how nurses can take occasional rest breaks during long shifts to reduce their risk of injury and prevent on-the-job fatigue that could impact patient care.

“The buddy system is just one of the strategies we use to ensure staff receive the meal and rest breaks they need to take good care of themselves and their patients,” Pam Steinke, chief nursing executive for the St. Charles Health System, said in a statement emailed to The Bulletin. “We’re constantly evaluating the needs of our patients and making sure appropriate resources are available for their care. We consistently work with our frontline nurses to develop unit-based staffing plans that are in compliance with state laws.”

According to the complaint, coverage for meal and rest breaks has been a standing agenda item for the nurses’ staffing committee for two years.

The Oregon Health Authority did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Last year, an arbitrator sided with the Washington State Nurses Association, which filed a grievance about the buddy system strategy at Tacoma General Hospital. The group argued the approach left nurses on call in case of an emergency with their patient and didn’t represent a true break at all.

“The nurse on break should be free from worry and concern, with the knowledge that the nurse’s colleague is providing the necessary attention to the assigned patients,” the arbitrator wrote in his decision. “If that nurse has his/her own patients, doubling the potential workload, even for 15 minutes, the time away from work is not really a break.”

The ruling required MultiCare Health System, which owns Tacoma General, to assign a float or relief nurse for each unit to cover patients while a nurse is on a break.

The grievance represents the latest in a tumultuous relationship between St. Charles Bend and its nurses. Emergency department nurses at the hospital filed a formal complaint with the OHA in 2015 alleging inadequate nurse staffing. Last year, the nurses filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board over the hospital’s requirement that employees who aren’t vaccinated for the flu virus must wear surgical masks.

— Reporter: 541-633-2162, mhawryluk@bendbulletin.com

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