Catholic health facilities aid employees whose lives are upended by West Coast fires

September Online

Sept. 21, 2020

For the many employees of Providence St. Joseph, PeaceHealth and CommonSpirit who lost their homes, have had to evacuate or whose lives have otherwise been upended by wildfires in Oregon or California, there have been many immediate worries: Where to stay? How to find trusted childcare with usual providers closed? How to pay for the unexpected costs and recover from the losses?

A PeaceHealth caregiver carries supplies up the stairs to The Patterson House, near PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center University District, in Eugene, Oregon. The health system reopened the house, once used as a guest house for families of patients, to provide temporary housing for PeaceHealth workers who lost homes to the wildfires.

Providence St. Joseph has service areas in both California and Oregon that have been devastated by August and September wildfires. In total, more than 700 Providence employees have been evacuated, more than 30 have lost homes and two in the system's Oregon region have lost loved ones.

PeaceHealth's Cottage Grove, Eugene and Springfield, Oregon, service areas have been most impacted by the blazes. More than 2,000 employees were uprooted from their homes in evacuation zones. At least 15 lost homes.

"Some staff were still coming in, even though they lost homes in the fires," says Elva Sipin, vice president of operations and incident command center chief for PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield.

Sipin says PeaceHealth organized a call center in early September at the outset of the wildfire threat to reach out to 2,500 employees in evacuation zones. Callers were asked what they needed and connected with resources. (PeaceHealth continues to staff a caregiver hotline for disaster resources.)

Emergency housing
Many employees of Dignity Health Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz, California, have had to be evacuated and some have lost their homes because of a fire that started in mid-August and was still burning on Sept. 20. Dr. Nanette Mickiewicz, the president of the hospital that is part of the CommonSpirit Health system, said Dominican has offered financial assistance and paid time off.

"We also helped identify temporary lodging for those employees needing it and created onsite care facilities for basic needs," Mickiewicz said. "This assistance was just a small token of our gratitude for the service these employees provide to our community every day — even in the face of disaster."

Providence St. Joseph's Northern California region helped employees displaced amid August fires to secure hard-to-find hotel rooms or to bunk up with colleagues. It was important to employees to avoid mass shelters because of the risk of coronavirus spread. Providence also helped employees find childcare providers and pet boarders.

PeaceHealth secured 80 hotel rooms or other temporary housing for evacuated employees. In Eugene, it opened a shuttered guest house to employees who'd lost their homes. The residence had once housed patients' out-of-town family members. In nearby Springfield, PeaceHealth Sacred Heart allowed displaced employees with RVs to set up their mobile homes on its campus.

Employee assistance
Like CommonSpirit, both PeaceHealth and Providence are offering financial aid to impacted employees. Lisa Vance, executive vice president and chief executive of Providence Health & Services – Oregon Region made a video to urge Providence Medford Medical Center employees to take advantage of the assistance. She's a native of Medford and has family in the Southern Oregon community.

"We know housing is a big issue especially while homes are being rebuilt," she says. "We are working on a plan for that, for sure. Smoke damage is a huge concern and we are trying to find resources. The system has also made funds available to reimburse you for your unexpected expenses like hotels. For those whose homes have been damaged or destroyed there is up to a $5,000 stipend available."

The ministry systems also are publicizing their employee assistance programs which offer resources for spiritual, emotional and mental health concerns. In addition, Providence-related charitable funds are awarding $100,000 to Oregon relief agencies and not-for-profit organizations involved with disaster response.

Colleague care
At Providence St. Joseph and PeaceHealth, employees are offering practical and emotional support to one another.

Dr. Tom Lorish, regional chief executive of Providence Southern Oregon, says colleagues "have stepped up to fill shifts and work in other departments." They have organized donations of clean scrubs and shoes for colleagues who lost work clothes in the fire or no longer have access to a washing machine. "Still others have extended a hand beyond our facility walls to help evacuees in need."

"Their generosity makes us so proud," he says.

Russ Reinhard, chief executive of Providence Willamette Falls Medical Center in Oregon City, says, "We're most proud of all of the caregivers who stepped in to help their team members who needed to turn their attention to their families and homes that were in the line of fire. This really demonstrates the community we have here." He says some associates helped care for colleagues' animals – from house pets to chickens to llamas.

Sipin says PeaceHealth built a social media platform to link employees who have pressing needs with their colleagues who can help them.

"We in the PeaceHealth leadership are really humbled by the caregivers and providers and how they have been reaching out to each other," she says.

To help PeaceHealth employees, access this page:

To give to the Providence Helping Hands Fund for employees, go to this page:

Lisa Eisenhauer contributed to this report.


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