Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during a press conference with UVMMC nurses Friday afternoon. With him, from left, are Deb Snell, president of AFT Vermont; Laurie Aunchman, president of VFNHP, and lead negotiator Julie MacMillan. VBM photo.
by Timothy McQuiston Vermont Business Magazine The University of Vermont Medical Center and the union representing the Burlington hospital's nurses are back at the bargaining table Friday evening. They hope to avert a 48-hour nurses strike that is planned to start at 7 am July 12. Beyond that, the nurses said they would work without a contract, at least for the time being. While much of their contention is with staffing levels which have left about 170 positions vacant, much of the discussion has been about wage increases. UVMMC has proposed an overall 13 percent wage increase over a three-year contract while the union has proposed a 24 percent increase. US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) also weighed in on behalf of the nurses in a rare press conference.
UVM Medical Center President Eileen Whalen said ahead of tonight’s bargaining session:
"The UVM Medical Center’s leaders are 100% focused on tonight’s bargaining session. As we’ve said all along, we believe we can reach agreement if both sides stay at the table and we involve a federal mediator, an approach which has worked in the past three negotiations. We ask that everyone join us in respecting the federal mediation process. We remain hopeful we can see this through to a fair resolution before the planned strike occurs next week."
The nurses issued the strike warning this past Monday. The hospital will bring in temporary nurses to fill in if needed.
Flanked by members of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals Friday afternoon in his snug Church Street conference room, Sanders demanded that the UVM Medical Center administration address the nursing crisis at the hospital.
“As anyone who has ever been in a hospital bed knows, nurses are the backbone of any hospital,” Sanders said. “Patients know that, doctors know that and administrators know that. And yet, today, we have a significant nursing crisis here at the Medical Center – Vermont and the region’s largest hospital.”
As for the nursing shortage, he said “Nurses are stretched beyond what is good for them or for their patients. They simply cannot provide the quality of care their patients need and deserve,” Sanders said. “Further, with a nursing workforce that is understaffed and overworked, morale suffers and the nurse turnover rate is higher than it should be.”
He noted that the Medical Center is forced to employ hundreds of “travel nurses” over the course of the year who come here for 13-week stints just to keep the hospital running.
Sanders said the Medical Center has had trouble attracting and retaining nurses because – according to research done by the nurses’ union – Vermont currently ranks 47th in the nation in terms of nurse wages adjusted for the cost of living.
The current contract covering approximately 1,800 registered nurses, nurse practitioners and licensed practical nurses (RNs, NPs, and LPNs) expires July 9. After more than 17 negotiating sessions, no agreement has been reached on the nurses’ request for fair and competitive wages, a hospital-wide $15 minimum wage and improved staffing levels to ensure quality patient care. Another 300 technicians are also union members but will not be part of the strike.
In mid-June Whalen told VBM that the hospital plans to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020.
UVMMC's Michael Carrese told VBM that, "About 900 of our approximately 8,000 employees make less than $15/hour. Again, we have been on a path for the last several years to reach that rate and plan to get there in 2020 as financial results permit."
"The average salary for RNs is currently $72,000. Under our proposal that jumps to $84,000. Under the union proposal it would be $92,000. All nurses also receive a benefits package worth more than 30% of base."
"What we put on the table for increasing nurse wages is based on market analysis, as are all of our compensation decisions, and we believe it is a fair and competitive proposal. The 24% increase the union is requesting is well above market, and would clearly interfere with our ability to meet other mission-critical obligations.
"We also believe," he said, "a 24% increase would create a serious recruitment and retention challenge for hospitals throughout the region."
The union has been frustrated by the process. They also maintain that while the wage hike will increase wages by tens of millions of dollars a year for union workers, the cost of the travel nurses and the expense of recruitment and training will be lessened on the front end. Even more money will be saved by better patient care and fewer patient injuries with a more stable workforce, as research suggests, said Julie MacMillan, lead negotiator for the nurses.
“We have been in negotiations since the end of March and the hospital is not hearing us,” MacMillan said. “We are not asking for Boston wages or New York City wages. We are looking for parity within our own network. We are looking for parity with Plattsburgh wages (the hospital in Plattsburgh is also part of the UVM Health Network).”
“If the Medical Center doesn’t pay competitive wages for the vitally important work nurses do, we will continue to see high vacancies and high turnover,” Sanders said. “If nurses don’t earn enough to live in dignity and raise a family here in Vermont, we will continue to lose them to other states that pay better.”
“There’s been a lot of talk recently about keeping our youth in Vermont, and encouraging more young families to move here,” Sanders said. “Well, how about making it more attractive to live and work here for the nurses who help keep us healthy, and who treat us when we are sick?”
Sanders said “like so many other issues, this contract negotiation is about priorities. I find it a bit hard to believe that the hospital has enough money to pay nearly $11 million to 15 administrators – including more than $2 million to the CEO – but doesn’t have enough money to pay their nurses the same wages as nurses earn just across the lake in Plattsburgh, where the cost of living is much lower.”
CEO compensation at UVM Medical Center has doubled in the past decade, he said, while average employee compensation, not including doctors, has remained essentially flat.
Sanders said, “I think we all agree that we want to avoid a strike. I know the nurses do; I know patients, family members and our community does; and I want to believe that the Medical Center does as well,” Sanders said. “To avoid that strike, the hospital must take seriously the nurses’ demands for fair and competitive wages.”
Sanders declined an opportunity to offer insight into his future presidential plans. "Today is about the nurses," he said.
Source: UVMMC. Sanders. To read Sanders’ prepared remarks, click here.