Op-Ed: UVM nurses union takes its case to the community — VFNHP Basrgaining Committee

The following is from the bargaining committee of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, the union elected to represent the more than 1,800 nurses at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

In a recent vote, 94 percent of nurses approved our bargaining committee calling for a strike if we feel it is necessary to achieve a contract to provide the quality care we want to give, and the quality care you deserve.

We take a strike very seriously and have not come to this decision lightly. We remain committed to working with the management team to solve UVM Medical Center’s safety, staffing, recruitment and retention issues and will call for a strike only as a last resort should the management team ignore the very real patient handling and staffing concerns and problems we face.

What are these problems?

• We do not have the nursing or support staffing levels we need to provide safe care.

UVM Medical Center’s staffing plans are outdated and do not account for how sick our patients are. As health care evolves and the UVM Health Network has expanded, the hospital has brought the sickest of the more than 1 million patients served by the network to our hospital, Vermont’s only Level 1 Trauma Center.

We agree that is an appropriate plan and we are happy to provide the necessary level of care, but staffing must meet the increased seriousness of patients’ illnesses and injuries, the increased volume of patients, and the need for more staff hands, hearts, and minds to provide the excellent level of care you’ve come to expect.

• Support staff wages are too low for us to recruit and retain the people we need.

As an example, our Licensed Nurse Aide turnover is 20 percent. We ask the medical center to commit to paying everyone at least $15 per hour. According to an analysis by the Vermont state auditor released last week, UVM Medical Center LNA compensation increased just 13 percent between 1997 and 2015. In contrast, the auditor said CEO compensation increased 625 percent in the same period. UVM Medical Center can and must do better for more than the top 1 percent of the organization.

UVM Medical Center is a $1.2 billion per year company, the flagship hospital of a nearly $2 billion per year health network that generates enough surplus to spend hundreds of millions annually on capital expenses, acquisition of businesses and property, and increasing reserves. In fiscal year 2017, the hospital’s net patient revenues exceeded its forecast by nearly $40 million.

We feel a profitable nonprofit organization that compensates its leaders millions of dollars a year should pay its staff a living wage.

• Studies and experience show a correlation between poor staffing levels and higher rates of patient infections, bedsores, medication errors, slips and falls, and worker injury.

In a nutshell, poor staffing creates unsafe conditions for patients and workers.

• We do not have a nursing compensation plan is locally or nationally competitive and that will allow UVM Medical Center to recruit and retain adequate numbers of qualified nurses.

We are seeing the beginnings of a perfect storm of a nurse shortage:  Baby boomers aging with increasing health needs; too few nurses entering the workforce; older nurses who delayed retirement leaving the workforce; new millennial nurses with education debt struggle to afford a home mortgage in order to settle in a community.

Hospitals then must compete on a national stage for nursing talent. Other hospitals offer incentives for nurses such as signing bonuses of up to $25,000, free college tuition for nurses and their children, even free housing near hospitals.

We have shared our market analysis with hospital managers who still claim UVM Medical Center pays market rate despite an LNA turnover of 20 percent and nursing vacancies lasting months and even years, resulting in a vacancy rate of about 10 percent.

Given Vermont’s high cost of living, Vermont nurses are the 47th lowest paid in the nation. UVM Medical Center Chief Executive and Chief Operating Officer Eileen Whalen refers to management’s proposals of 7 percent wage increases over three years and additional increases up to 11 and even 18 percent for some positions.

This does not show the complete picture. Health insurance cost increases and inflation will transform a 7 percent raise to a pay cut over three years. Additionally, the larger raises mentioned don’t apply to approximately 600 dedicated nurses, a third of our membership.

At the time of this writing, our most experienced nurses have been offered only a 1 percent increase to their base salary over three years.

In recent letters to nurses, medical center executives have thanked us for our work and dedication, saying our role is essential in delivering the care patients deserve.

We couldn’t agree more.

We call on hospital executives to stop withholding relevant information; stop the unfair labor practices that intimidate nurses for speaking out about pay and patient safety; stop ignoring serious concerns about safe patient practices, recruitment and retention; and quickly agree to a contract that allows UVM Medical Center to remain competitive and allows nurses and staff to provide the care we want to give and that our community deserves.

The frontline nurses who are delivering your care every hour of every day are saying loudly and clearly that we need help.

Consider the kind of care you want for yourself, your family, and your friends if you need our services. In the critical moments between life and death, how understaffed, unsupported, overwhelmed, distracted, and tired do you want your nurses to be?

Please support our campaign for a fair and safe contract for the nurses of the UVM Medical Center Network by contacting UVM Health Network Chief Executive Dr. John Brumsted, UVM Medical Center President and COO Eileen Whalen, Chief Nursing Officer Kate FitzPatrick or any member of the hospital’s board of directors.

The members of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals bargaining committee are: Tristin Adie, Laurie Aunchman, Nancy Bissonette, Phillip Bowler, Dawn Bray-Riley, Alain Brunet, Maria Cochrane, Valerie Conte, Philip Corriveau, Stephanie Davies, Clare Doyle, Kelly Dunford, Marybeth Early, Tracy Fornasier, Rachel Foxx, Adam Gil, Sarah Girome, Jonathan Glaude, Caitlin Gray, Kate Janson, Julie Kent, Jessica A. Kilpatrick, Kim Kuhlmeier, Amy Lang, Samira Lawson, Stephanie Lusk, Daniel Luttrell, Julie MacMillan, Kathleen McCarthy, Andrea Messier, Alison Morrow, Leigh Nelson, Andrea Parker, Sherrie Peterson, Noah Ponzio, Angela Pratt, Cristina Price, Sierra Schultz, Tiffany Short, Karin Stafford, Caroline Tassey, Debra Toof, Kristin Viens, Molly Wallner, Anna Westervelt, Donna Zarro, Diane Zeller

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