By Mike Faher, VTDigger
University of Vermont Medical Center nurses say they will walk off the job for 48 hours starting at 7 a.m. July 12 if they cannot reach agreement on a new contract.
Leaders of the 1,800-member nurses’ union gave notice of the pending strike on Monday. They contend hospital leaders have “stonewalled” them during three months of talks that hinge on staffing and salary disputes.
“It is about wages, because we can’t recruit people and we can’t retain people,” said Julie MacMillan, a registered nurse and the union’s lead negotiator. “But this is also nurses saying, ‘We will not be doormats. We will not be bullied, and we are standing up for our rights.’”
Administrators at Vermont’s largest hospital have been making preparations to bring in temporary nursing help via a Colorado company that specializes in healthcare work stoppages. But both sides also said they’re willing to continue talking to try and avert a strike.
“None of us want to get there,” said Eileen Whalen, UVM Medical Center’s president and chief operating officer. “And I want to assure the community that we will do everything in our power to make sure that doesn’t occur, which means we’re going to be back at the table working very hard.”
The Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals – which represents licensed practical nurses, registered nurses and nurse practitioners at UVM Medical Center – began contract talks with the hospital in late March. The current contract expires July 9.
There have been 17 bargaining sessions including lengthy talks on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. But MacMillan said there was “very, very little” progress made at those weekend sessions.
Wages and staffing have been sticking points throughout the talks. The two issues are related: Union members say they’re not paid enough to keep the hospital adequately staffed, leading to nurse burnout and patient-care issues.
Union President Laurie Aunchman said there are about 150 openings for nurses at any given time at the hospital. And Tristin Adie, a nurse practitioner, said there are “positions that sit unfilled for weeks, months and even years at a time.”
“This has created a real crisis, as you can imagine,” Adie said at a union gathering held Monday outside the hospital’s Colchester Avenue entrance. Nurses are working “well past our allotted hours … and we’re still not staying caught up,” she added.
Hospital administrators have countered that their vacancy rate is not unique, as hospitals statewide and nationally struggle with workforce issues.
Whalen also has said the hospital has hired more than 300 registered nurses and more than 400 support staff since October 2016. More than 120 of those were new positions.
Much of Monday’s debate centered on wages. UVM nurses say they want pay parity with another University of Vermont Health Network hospital in Plattsburgh, N.Y., but they say the hospital’s offer is still $2.16 per hour short of that level.
Representatives from both sides said there has been some movement on the wage issue. But Whalen said the union’s salary ask amounts to a 24 percent increase, while the hospital has raised its offer from 7 percent to 13 percent over three years.
“I don’t think the 24 percent is realistic,” Whalen said.
No date set
The nurses’ union last month authorized a two-day strike if necessary but didn’t set a date as talks continued. Monday’s announcement of a strike date shows that those talks have deteriorated, even after a mediator became involved.
Monday also featured stronger statements from the union, as leaders accused the hospital of intimidation and unfair labor practices. A visibly angry MacMillan declared that “we’re working for the biggest bullies in the state right now” even as she said more negotiating sessions are possible.
Asked for a response, Whalen said “it’s important that we continue to honor respectful professionalism on both sides. I think that’s really the only way we’re going to get to an agreement.”
If there is no agreement by the morning of July 12, unionized nurses will walk off the job.
It’s not clear whether all union members will honor the strike. The union points out that 94 percent of the votes cast last month were in favor of a work stoppage, but Whalen said “we don’t know yet how many of our own nurses will be coming in.”
“We will not be locking anyone out,” she said. “Every nurse is welcome – every employee, not just nurses.”
The hospital will set up a “confidential website,” Whalen said, where nurses will “be able to indicate their interest in coming to work or not.”
Based on that assessment, “we look at day of the week, time of the day, what our average daily census is, and we start to project the types of nurses and the numbers of nurses” that would be needed in a strike, she said.
That’s where an outside consultant comes in. UVM Medical Center has contracted with Colorado-based Autumn Consulting Services, which touts its “dependable crisis-staffing solutions.”
Whalen said Autumn Consulting has been “working with us to assess our clinical needs” and will “help us augment the staffing to make sure that we have services running full-tilt those two days.”
Those temporary staffers won’t be typical traveling nurses, Whalen said. Rather, they will be nurses who have experience working during strikes.
“So they are used to being dropped into the middle of an academic medical center, and not getting involved in the local discussions between management and the union, and just focusing on quality patient care,” Whalen said.
At a recent Green Mountain Care Board meeting, a union representative said a strike will cost UVM Medical Center, “in salary alone, about $1.2 million a day.” That doesn’t include housing costs, the union said.
Whalen said that number may be inaccurate, because hospital administrators are still calculating their costs. But she acknowledged that “this will be incredibly expensive. It is not what we want to do.”
The hospital’s priority, Whalen said, is providing “quality care to our patients and families with as little disruption as possible.”
But some are skeptical of such assurances.
“They are frankly delusional if they think they can go on business as usual without us,” MacMillan said.
Union leaders also said they see a strike as advocacy for their patients. “Every nurse on the picket line July 12 should hold their head up high and be proud of the stance we are taking for our patients, our community, our colleagues and ourselves,” said Deb Snell, the union’s vice president.