by Sarah Olsen vtdigger.org The nurses’ union at University of Vermont Medical Center is threatening to strike over pay and excessive overtime. The president of the nurses’ union at the University of Vermont Medical Center told the hospital’s board of trustees she and other nurses are particularly concerned about staffing levels.
Laurie Aunchman, interim president of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, addressed the trustees as they entered the final three days of negotiations for the new nursing contract at UVMMC.
Laurie Aunchman, interim president of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, addresses the UVM Medical Center board of trustees Thursday. Photo by Sarah Olsen/VTDigger
Aunchman, who has been a registered nurse at the UVM Medical Center since 1976, said nurses are concerned about workplace safety at the hospital due to inadequate staffing.
“It is an honor and privilege to work here, and I sincerely mean that,” Aunchman said.
But Aunchman said nurses are willing to strike over their differences with the hospital if management doesn’t make concessions by the Monday deadline for negotiations. She gave the board a petition that had been signed by over 1,000 nurses and over 500 community members.
“I understand what you can and cannot do; I also understand what influence you have,” Aunchman said to the board.
John Powell, chair of the board of trustees, told Aunchman that her message was received. “There are no ordinary people that work here,” Powell said. “This hospital is staffed with really extraordinary people.”
Aunchman said nurses are proud of their work and don’t get upset until they believe their ability to deliver quality care has been compromised.
From April 2014 to March 2015, nurses worked 47,408.96 hours of overtime, Aunchman said. That’s equivalent to 26 additional full-time employees a year, she said. The hospital has acknowledged that staffing is a problem, she said.
Aunchman said safety concerns arise when there aren’t enough staff to move a patient without risk of nurses injuring themselves. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, there should be five nurses to turn a 300-pound patient. Aunchman said often there are only two nurses available, and that means each nurse is deadlifting 150 pounds.
The new $187.3 million towers being built at the hospital will provide 128 patient beds and consist of only private rooms, increasing the percentage of private rooms from 30 percent to approximately 90 percent, according to the UVM Medical Center website. Aunchman is asking that the nurses be included in the program design for the new towers in order to ensure that the spaces are designed for efficient delivery of care.
Aunchman said she doesn’t know how many nurses need to be hired to become adequately staffed because each unit is different. Aunchman works in the intensive care unit. That unit recently hired eight nurses, which she said she feels should be sufficient, but it will take time to get them up to speed. Nurses who are new to intensive care must go through 24 to 25 weeks of training before they can work independently, Aunchman said.
Two nurse practitioners were also at the board of trustees meeting. Tristin Adie, nurse practitioner of outpatient internal medicine, and Shannon Lyons, nurse practitioner of outpatient family medicine, are asking that 20 percent paid administrative time to be added to the contract. Lyons said the time would be used to help finish notes, make phone calls to patients and families and review lab notes, among other duties. Now, in order to keep up with the patient load and administrative duties, Lyons and Adie say they work from 15 to 20 hours of overtime a week.
“Working 12 hours a day, you’re done — you’re fried when you come home,” Lyons said. “It makes it really difficult to have a balance between your work life and your personal life.”
“If I’m not reviewing my notes every second that I’m not working and before I come into work, I won’t be able to keep up,” Adie said.
Adie and Lyons are also asking for limits on the number of patients they are assigned per week. Both said there was a cap on patient loads when they were first hired, but the limits were lifted as time went on. One nurse ended up working at 200 percent of her expected productivity because of the lack of patient load limits, they said.
Jess Fuller, UVM Class of 2015 and member of the Vermont Workers’ Center, also spoke at the board meeting. She was hit by a car three weeks ago in a “traumatic experience,” and ended up at the UVM Medical Center for her care, she said.
“The first people I could see taking care of me were nurses at some level or another,” Fuller said.
Fuller said the nurses not only provided all the health care she needed with her injuries but calmed her down and contacted her mother and friends about the incident.
“She spent 20 minutes on the phone just explaining what had happened and answering any questions they had,” Fuller said of her nurse.
One of the nurses who cared for Fuller told her that she “can’t afford to live like this,” Fuller said. The nurses’ quality of life and salaries are part of the negotiation process, they said.
“Now is the time to recognize your employees who have lived through this recession, have received less than the cost-of-living increases over the last three years, are at status quo of CTO accrual and receive minimal financial incentive for professional development,” Aunchman said to the board.
She said the hospital needs to give nurses higher wages to recruit and retain the best quality of staff possible. UVM Medical Center nurses’ salaries are 40 percent of the national median, Auchman said.
“Our proposals will continue with UVMMC’s vision to create a culture of safety, wellness, equity and respect, but most importantly, a continuation of the excellence of care we provide at the bedside or in the clinic, every single day, 365 days of the year,” Auchman said.