UVM Medical Center, nurses to restart contract talks

Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger
Nurses and their allies hold a rally outside the main entrance of UVM Medical Center on day one of the strike.

By Mike Faher
University of Vermont Medical Center administrators and the hospital’s unionized nurses have agreed to resume contract negotiations next week.

The two sides are scheduled to meet the evening of July 24 – 10 days after nurses ended a 48-hour strike that the union called amid continued disagreement about salary and staffing issues.

Julie MacMillan, a registered nurse and the union’s lead negotiator, said she’d been hoping to restart contract talks a little sooner. But she also said the session is a chance for a fresh start.

“I’m going to go back to the table with a very open mind to try and settle this issue, and I hope that the hospital will do the same,” MacMillan said.

In a statement issued Tuesday, hospital President Eileen Whalen said administrators are “very pleased to be heading back to the table and continuing the search for common ground so we can come to a fair agreement.”

The Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals represents about 1,800 licensed practical nurses, registered nurses and nurse practitioners at Vermont’s largest hospital. The union’s contract expired July 9. The last talks were held July 11, but that was after nurses gave hospital administration notice that they would consider a strike.

Nurses began a two-day work stoppage at 7 a.m. on June 12.

The union contends UVM Medical Center isn’t paying its nurses enough, leading to chronic staffing shortages, nurse burnout and safety concerns. The union has proposed a 23 percent raise over a three-year contract, with annual “step” increases included in that figure.

Whalen calls the request “unrealistic.” She has said the hospital’s proposed 13 percent raise is fair. Administrators also say their nurse-vacancy rate is on par with other health care facilities, and add that they’ve hired nearly 100 nurses since March.

During last week’s strike, the hospital hired hundreds of temporary nurses via a Colorado company that specializes in staffing during health care work stoppages.

An inspection by the state Division of Licensing and Protection during the strike reported that the hospital was in compliance with governmental regulations.

Whalen estimated that the strike cost the hospital $3 million to cover replacement nurses’ wages, travel and lodging.

Neither side wanted to discuss a possible second stoppage Friday.

“Our focus right now is to come together at the table,” Whalen said. “It is not to develop a contingency plan for another strike.”

MacMillan said nurses are looking toward finding a solution. “My goal is to try to help us move forward together,” MacMillan said. “I would like to see us and the hospital try to heal our clearly broken relationship.”

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