Sanders with union vice president Deb Snell and lead negotiator Julie MacMillan
Updated 9:51 p.m.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) criticized administrators of the University of Vermont Medical Center and called on them to meet face-to-face with hospital nurses during a press conference at his Burlington office on Friday.
More than 1,000 nurses are prepared to strike on July 12 and 13 amid contentious contract negotiations. Nurses are calling for salary parity with the nurses at Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh, N.Y., which is a member of the UVM Health Network. The union says the hospital is dangerously understaffed because low salaries create long-term vacancies and high turnover rates.
“Like so many other things, this contract negotiation is about priorities,” said Sanders. “I find it really hard to believe that the hospital has enough money to pay nearly $11 million to 15 administrators, including more than $2 million to the CEO, but apparently doesn’t have enough money to pay their nurses the same wages as nurses earn just across the lake in Plattsburgh, where the cost of living is, in fact, lower.”
A bargaining session between the union and the administration was set for 5 p.m. on Friday, but union leaders said hospital representatives will not sit in the same room as them and instead plan to rely on a federal mediator to relay information between the two sides. Prior to Friday, hospital representatives met with the union’s bargaining team directly, according to the union.
Sanders said nurses are the backbone of any hospital, but that they cannot provide the quality of care patients need and deserve when they are stretched too thin by hospital vacancies. He criticized the hospital for planning to spend money to hire replacement workers during the strike rather than agreeing to pay permanent nurses a competitive wage.
If the medical center does not pay nurses enough to live in dignity and raise families, Vermont will lose them to other states, said Sanders.
“I find it even harder to believe the medical center when it says it has to pay these inflated administrators' salaries to attract the best and the brightest people to run the hospital,” said Sanders. “How about paying competitive wages to attract the best and the brightest nurses who actually care for the patients?”
Sanders also criticized the hospital for paying nurse’s assistants less than $15 an hour. The nurses' union has demanded a $15-an-hour minimum wage for all hospital staff.
This is not the first time Sanders has criticized the medical center. In 1987, when he was mayor of Burlington, Sanders served the tax-exempt hospital a tax bill. The hospital sued the city and won, but ultimately agreed to payments in lieu of taxes that continue today.
Hospital spokesman Michael Carrese previously told Seven Days that wages for other hospital staff are not part of the contract negotiations with the nurses. He said the hospital’s minimum hourly wage is currently $11.79, but it will be $15 by 2020. The hospital must be careful when it raises wages because it is such a large employer, and a shift in wages would pressure other businesses to do the same, according to Carrese.
Chief operating officer Eileen Whalen said in a statement Friday afternoon that the hospital is “100 percent focused” on the bargaining session and requested respect for the federal mediation process. Hospital officials remain hopeful that a resolution will be reached before the strike, according to the statement.
The nurses are less optimistic. Deb Snell, union vice president, said the union has rented an office on Colchester Avenue across from the medical center to use as headquarters during the strike.
Sanders was not the only politician speaking out on behalf of the nurses. State Rep. Johannah "Joey" Donovan (D-Burlington) and Sen. Philip Baruth (D/P- Chittenden) attended a press conference Monday during which the nurses announced they had served the hospital a strike notice. Donovan announced that 43 members of the Vermont legislature had signed a letter to hospital CEO Dr. John Brumsted expressing concern about a potential strike and chronic understaffing at the hospital.
Democratic gubernatorial hopeful James Ehlers also sent the hospital a letter in support of the nurses, calling for "a fair contract resolution." On Monday, VTDigger.org reported that Ehlers had criticized labor unions on Twitter several years ago.
Doctors have also joined the chorus of voices in support of the union. Ninety physicians and other health care providers signed a letter calling on the hospital to increase compensation for nurses.
Dr. Prema Menon, a pulmonary and critical care physician and letter signee, told Seven Days that short staffing makes her outpatient clinic feel as if there is a strike going on every day. It is not unheard of for the clinic to go without nurses for two days, said Menon. The clinic currently has one nurse for 20 providers, and has had seven different nurses fill that role since 2015, she said. The staffing makes it difficult to respond to patients who call in with concerns, she said.
Menon said a strike would be devastating for her inpatient clinic, where patients are admitted overnight, since understanding how a hospital’s system works is as important to safe care as nursing skill.
But understaffing has already made patient care difficult too, Menon said. Charge nurses in the Intensive Care Unit, who are supposed to take the lead in case of an emergency, have been given bedside duties because of short staffing. This means if an emergency occurs they have to leave a bedside to help, she said.
In an email Friday evening, Carrese said the hospital has hired more than 754 nurses and support staff since October 2016. The hospital's administrators understand that paying competitive wages is key to attracting and retaining employees, Carrese said, and believe they have put an offer on the table that is fair and competitive.