University of Vermont Medical Center is making plans to fly hundreds of out-of-town nurses to Burlington to fill in if its nurses strike for two days next week. A staffing agency is recruiting nurses online and reserving local hotel rooms.
Hotel Vermont general manager Joseph Carton said Tuesday morning that an agency tried to reserve 600 rooms in Burlington. Hotel Vermont, which has 125 rooms, could not accommodate the entire request. But the agency ultimately reserved 32 rooms between Hotel Vermont and the Courtyard Burlington Harbor next door, which is owned by the same company, Carton said.
Hospital spokesperson Michael Carrese said the hospital has gone to Autumn Consulting Services to deal with the potential strike on July 12 and 13. "Labor dispute staffing now" is the tagline on the company's homepage. One of the services offered is nursing strike preparation.
"Organizational labor disputes are complex," the site says. "Continuing to provide optimal care is critical to both your stakeholders and the community. ACS works with your team to establish a contingency plan that secures your reputation and supports the lives of your patients."
A screenshot from a Facebook group showed that the staffing agency guarantees 36 hours of work at $62 per hour. The post says the hospital is also covering the cost of flights and lodging for the temporary nurses.
Laurie Aunchman, the president of the Vermont Federation of Nurses & Health Professionals, said it didn’t surprise her that the hospital was preparing for a strike, just as the 1,800-member union is. “We’re still going to have patients in the hospital that need to be taken care of, and the hospital has to do what it needs to do in taking care of the patients that remain,” she said.
Still, Aunchman said, the money that the hospital is spending on temporary nurses would be better used paying the nurses that already work there.
"A strike would be expensive and we are doing everything we can to avoid it," Carrese said. "Which is why we have nearly doubled our wage offer, agreed to a wage increase for outpatient nurses of up to 25 percent to begin in the next two months instead of spread over three years, agreed to changes in staffing requested by the union, and made other significant moves responsive to the union’s requests."
He didn't know how many nurses might be brought in.
"[W]e won’t know how many we’ll need from the agency until we find out how many of our nurses are planning to come to work during the strike, should there be one," he said. "We expect to have that information early next week."
The union gave 10 days notice of a strike on Monday, but it could be averted if the union and administrators reach a deal in contract negotiations. Both sides voiced willingness Tuesday to work together to avoid a strike.
"We look forward to continuing our dialogue with the union to reach a fair agreement that supports our nurses in their incredibly important work," Carrese said.
Aunchman said Tuesday that no negotiating sessions were scheduled. "If the hospital wants to be at the table tomorrow, we will be there," she said.
Any strike could have ugly aspects. As news of the Hotel Vermont reservations spread, users took to the hotel’s Facebook page to criticize management for reserving rooms for nonunion nurses who would backfill for strikers.
“It seems like you're doing a really disservice to the community by hosting scabs at your hotel,” wrote a user going by Micum MacIntyre, whose profile says he’s from Montpelier. “You should be supporting the nurses who are just trying to make sure we can get quality medical care while taking care of those who provide it. I hope you'll consider not taking this dirty money.”
Hotel manager Carton said he’s “empathetic” to the cause of the nurses. But he said he doesn’t want Hotel Vermont to join the ranks of businesses in the news for denying service, noting the recent controversy surrounding the Red Hen restaurant in Virginia, which booted President Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
"It’s not, 'You can stay here, and you can’t,'" he said. "We're just open for business."