BUFFALO, N.Y. — Last year, the New York State Nursing Association won a major victory when the state Legislature passed safe staffing legislation for hospitals and nursing homes.

However, NYSNA delegate Lona DeNisco said at Erie County Medical Center, where she works as a registered nurse, staffing is as short as she's ever seen it.

"I've never seen this poorly staffed," DeNisco said. "It's super unsafe, not just for the patients but for the nurses."

Effective this month, hospitals are beginning the process of developing their safe staffing policies and standards but DeNisco said it's difficult to see how it will come together.

"We're like a skeleton crew right now, so I don't think people are understanding how bad, and it's not just our facility, it's every facility right now, how bad the staffing actually is," she said.

There are multiple reasons for the shortages. Denisco said the hospital is down roughly 80 nurses who are out with COVID-19.

About 150 more are gone, she said, because of the state's vaccine mandate for health care workers, but it goes deeper than that.

"I don't like people to attribute this to the mandate because we were struggling before the mandate even kicked in," DeNisco said.

The hospital, in turn, has brought in outside help from agencies like Northwell. Unfortunately, DeNisco said trauma centers like ECMC require specific skillsets agency nurses don't typically bring.

Meanwhile, they're making significantly more than the regular staff.

"We have endured [the pandemic]," she said. "The nurses are loyal. They're dedicated and it's an insult actually to see somebody without the experience, without the know-how, to get paid triple what a nurse who's been there for 20 years is being paid."

DeNisco said the union will be focusing this year on pushing for better conditions in facilities, that staff have specific training and hospitals are accountable for following their own COVID-19 and PPE policies.

ECMC said it currently has an additional 400 open positions and are advocating for state and federal resources to help ECMC overcome the significant impact of the pandemic. Hospital representatives said they've hired more than 300 people since August and they're aggressively recruiting new caregivers.

"Despite the staffing challenges all healthcare institutions are facing in every region of our country, ECMC continues to aggressively recruit new caregivers to help meet the needs of our patients. We have maintained an open dialogue with all of our bargaining units to ensure they are aware of any operational impacts caused by the pandemic. To further reduce the potential spread of COVID, ECMC last week suspended patient visitation," spokesperson Peter Cutler said.

As required by the state, all workers are vaccinated and screened daily for COVID-19 symptoms.