Nurses were up early to rally outside the hospital.
Updated at 5:30 p.m.
The nurses' union at the University of Vermont Medical Center officially went on strike at 7 a.m. Thursday.
A sizable crowd of nurses, most wearing red shirts and holding signs and cups of coffee, gathered outside the hospital’s main entrance by 6:10 a.m. The group cheered as more colleagues joined them. Some talked among themselves about the disappointing end to negotiations with hospital management, which refused to meet nurses' contract demands. The union has complained about short staffing and said the hospital must increase compensation to attract more nurses.
Keith Brunner, a union spokesperson, said nearly 1,300 nurses had signed up to picket during the strike. Union leaders addressed the crowd with words of encouragement at 7 a.m., and then the medical center workers split up into three groups based on nursing units to picket at different hospital entrances.
“Safe staffing saves lives,” chanted hundreds of nurses as they marched to the hospital’s Colchester Avenue entrance. Drivers and motorcyclists honked at the marchers and many gave them thumbs up. Nurses carried homemade signs, some of which likened hospital administrators to members of President Donald Trump’s administration.
They lined up on either side of the hospital entrance to picket, but will have to stay off hospital property.
“None of us want to be striking because we care tremendously about our patients, but we also need to be able to take care of ourselves before we can take care of others, and the hospital is making it very difficult to do that,” said Savannah Solomon, a community health nurse.
Tiffany Choiniere, an operating room nurse rallying with Solomon, said she is frequently not able to finish her shift on time because there are not enough nurses to take over.
The hospital’s interior was calm and quiet as replacement nurses began their shifts. Police officers hired by the hospital were posted at different doors to make sure rally rowdiness stayed outside.
A final night of bargaining on Wednesday ended after the union rejected the hospital’s proposal for a 14 percent wage increase over the next three years, an amount that included the annual 2 percent “step increases” nurses receive as they move up the pay ladder. Julie MacMillan, the union’s lead negotiator, said a big sticking point of the proposal was that it does not offer enough to nurses at the top of the pay scale, who would not receive such steps. MacMillan said Eileen Whalen, the hospital's chief operating officer, walked away from the table after the union rejected her offer.
“Last night was incredibly disappointing. Eileen Whalen came and spoke to us as if we were small children,” said MacMillan. “After we offered her an opportunity to avert this work stoppage, she said, 'Our last offer is fair and our last offer is it,' and then walked away from the table.”
Picketing at hospital entrances slowed at noon when the union held a second rally outside the hospital. Nurses from Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital, a UVM Health Network affiliate in Plattsburgh, N.Y., and Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, Mass., gave speeches and led chants. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who held a press conference in support of the nurses earlier this month, called in to express his support for the nurses.
Around the same time, Sanders’ supporters within a 10-mile radius of Burlington received a text from his campaign encouraging them to “stand alongside the nurses.” Shannon Jackson, Sanders’ campaign manager, confirmed the campaign sent the texts to about 20,000 people in its database. Campaign staffers also attended the nurses’ rallies and supplied water to the picket line, according to Jackson.
Later Thursday, Whalen and chief medical officer Dr. Isabelle Desjardins held a press conference to answer questions about the strike.
Whalen said the transition to temporary nurses, who will work 12-hour shifts, occurred seamlessly Thursday morning. She said 275 temporary nurses were in place at the hospital at 7:00 a.m., along with 90 more temporary nurses at outpatient clinics. Whalen did not provide numbers for how many union nurses came to work Thursday, but said 125 gave the hospital advance notice that they would come in during the 48-hour strike. She was unable to say how much the temporary nurses will be paid, but said the total cost of the strike will likely be in the millions of dollars.
When asked to respond to comments from union supporters attacking the salaries of hospital executives, Whalen said salaries are set by the hospital board.
“Our board compensation philosophy is consistent with many other academic medical centers, and I think that like other academic medical centers the board sets a fair salary to be able to recruit, retain, attract the highest quality people,” said Whalen.
Whalen rejected nurses’ accusations of bullying by management and said that many members of her staff have felt intimidated by union members.
Although the union is still asking for wage increases 11 percent higher than what the hospital is offering, Whalen said agreements have been reached over staffing and safety concerns. One nursing complaint has been that charge nurses, who are supposed to take control in the event of an emergency, have been given bedside tasks. This means if an emergency occurs, they might have to abandon the patient they are working with. Whalen said the hospital will hire nine or 10 more nurses to ensure charge nurses are not given assignments.
On Wednesday night, Whalen had sent out a statement that said that the hospital met with the union in good faith for 22 bargaining sessions, and that officials listened to and acted upon many union requests.
“We’re disappointed the union did not change its position, and continued to insist on a raise of 23 percent over the next three years,” the statement read. "In the end, the organization could not responsibly meet the union’s wage demands and also meet all of the other responsibilities we have to our patients and families, our employees, and the communities we serve.”
On Friday, community members led by progressive advocacy group Rights & Democracy plan to picket outside the office of UVM Medical Center CEO John Brumsted. During the negotiations, the nurses' union and others have frequently brought up Brumsted's salary, which was about $2.2 million in 2015.
"We all know that this struggle is about more than a contract," R&D executive director James Haslam wrote in an email to supporters. "On one side we have Brumsted — a multimillionaire who puts corporate profits ahead of patients and ahead of the dignity of nurses — and on the other side we have 1,800 nurses —middle-class Vermonters, our neighbors, who tend to us when we are sick and dying, and who are saying 'enough is enough.'"
The strike is expected to last until 7 a.m. Saturday. Picketing will take place 24 hours a day at the hospital's main building, while groups will also picket other hospital campuses in the area.