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'I could work here': Oregon National Guard members assigned to serve at the state hospital return as full time employees

Facing staffing shortages, the state's psychiatric hospital got a surge of employees after several guard members applied following their mission.

SALEM, Oregon — Oregon State Hospital is finding some relief from staffing shortages through a partnership developed during the pandemic with the Oregon National Guard.

In the Summer of 2021 as COVID-19 peaked, guard members stepped up to fill staffing shortages at hospitals around the state. When OSH requested support, 32 guard members provided it, including Zenas Sigrah.

“I was nervous about working here,” said Sigrah. “I remember as a kid the bars on the windows. It's a mental hospital. But then after working here with some of the patients — they're just regular people like us who do need help.”

On his mission, Sigrah was assigned to work in food services. But as the months passed, he saw other opportunities at the hospital outside his service with the guard.

“I was like oh, I can do this. I could work here,” he said.

This past June, 10 guard members including Sigrah, applied to work for the state hospital after their mission ended. Sigrah is now a mental health therapy technician. His days include escorting patients to their meals, therapy sessions or just passing a little time with them.

“We'll play cards, dice is usually the number one thing that they like to play up there,” said Sigrah.

RELATED: Oregon OSHA issues $54K workplace safety fine against Oregon State Hospital

Hospital officials tell KGW they currently have more than 200 job openings ranging from medical to clerical positions; but they said just getting people to apply can be challenging.

“I think being injured is probably one of the main concerns people would have,” said Angie Johnson the director of nursing at OSH. “And while that does happen, it doesn't happen all the time.”

Johnson noted not every job poses that type of risk and that training is a big part of prevention. She called the need to staff-up, critical.

“That's the goal here, to provide the best patient care we can,” said Johnson. “If we're fully staffed, that relieves stress from the job.”

The windfall of guard member applicants was unexpected and the product of a chance to test the waters. Johnson hopes others will take their own chance at finding a rewarding fit within the hospital.

“I think being able to help people when they're in crisis is one of the main things,” said Johnson. “People come here when they're at their worst and we're able to help them get through that and get to a space where they can lead a fulfilling life in the community.”

RELATED: Oregon State Hospital will start releasing patients facing criminal charges

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