Amidst a tense contract bargaining negotiation, nurses at the University of Vermont Medical Center announced at a press conference Friday morning that they had filed a complaint against the hospital with the National Labor Relations Board. The nurses allege twenty labor violations, including unlawful unilateral changes to staffing grids and unlawful ordering of employees to remove union buttons.
Friday was meant to be the final day of negotiations, but six hours after the morning event, union leaders told hundreds of nurses and community members packed inside the Davis Auditorium that no deal had been made. The current contract is scheduled to expire on July 9.
Leaders called for members of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, which represents about 1,800 nurses at UVM Medical Center, to attend an all-member meeting on June 6 to voice their opinions on the union's bottom line and the methods they should use to obtain their goals.
Earlier in the day, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, rallied with the nurses outside of the hospital. The national labor leader called for the hospital to care for its community and spend money on nurses rather than on administrative salaries.
“You're acting like the Trump administration, not like a Vermont administration,” Weingarten said.
The morning press conference and the evening public rally were among several ways the nurses have aired their grievances to the public this negotiation cycle. Yard signs calling for fair contracts for nurses are scattered on lawns throughout the area. A May 12 union march in Burlington featured an appearance by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Julie MacMillan, a registered nurse and the union's lead negotiator, said the nurses feel the community should be aware of the problems at the hospital. She said in past negotiation cycles, when the hospital was not in as good financial standing, nurses took cost of living adjustments so that they could keep serving the community. But now, as the hospital reaps enormous contract margins, she said the nurses have had enough. MacMillan said the union has been inspired by the successes of other labor movements across the country.
Among the nurses' grievances is their claim that the hospital’s compensation is not sufficient for the cost of living in Vermont, and that it is lower than compensation from comparable institutions in the region.
Lower pay has prevented the hospital from filling its nursing positions, leading to extra work and worse patient care, according to the union. MacMillan said nurses have raised concerns about increases in so-called hospital-acquired conditions, such as falls,pressure ulcers and infections, which they say could be prevented with better staffing.
Anna Westervelt, a nurse practitioner in urology who spoke at the press conference, said understaffing has forced at least one colleague to work 50 to 60 hours a week while being paid for 40. Her own position was left unfilled for a year because of its low salary, she said.
“What we are asking for is not outrageous,” said Westervelt. “We are asking for the median and we are being told we are not worth it.”
Eileen Whalen, president and chief operating officer of the UVM Medical Center, said the hospital is confident that its compensation is competitive. The hospital conducts a detailed market analysis which takes the salaries of similar organizations, cost of living and non-salary compensation such as tuition into account, she said. The hospital is currently paying tuition for more than 90 registered nurses to complete bachelor of science degrees in nursing, according to Whalen.
“The average base pay for the vast majority of our nurses is about $64,000, and I would challenge that that definitely meets market rates,” said Whalen. She said the hospital is interested in working with the union to ensure wage increases move with the market.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual pay for registered nurses nationally in 2017 was $73,550. Nurse practitioners made an average of $107,480.
Attendees leave the hospital after the evening event.
MacMillan said the union has traditionally taken bargaining “down to the wire,” but had hoped this session would resolve sooner. She said the union is not ready to use a mediator, as members feel there are still too many details to be worked out with hospital management. A mediator would allow management to sit in a different room and avoid engaging in conversation with the union, said MacMillan.
The union has said striking is an option if its demands are not met when the contract runs out on July 9. Whalen said the hospital is confident a resolution will be reached, but said striking is within the legal rights of the nurses. The hospital is planning in case it receives a strike notice to ensure the continuation of safe, high quality care, according to Whalen.