A majority of the University of Vermont Medical Center's nurses didn't attend the Green Mountain Care Board meeting in Burlington on Wednesday, but those there managed to make their voices heard.
The crowd on Church Street, dressed in red and armed with signs and bullhorns, urged the hospital to offer its nurses better wages and increased staffing levels.
Their chants filtered into Burlington City Hall's Contois Auditorium, where the state's hospital oversight board would be tasked with reviewing, and eventually approving, the medical center's fiscal year 2019 budget.
At 9 a.m., top hospital brass lined up before the Green Mountain Care Board to testify for three hours on the institution's finances and plans for the future. But foremost in the officials' minds was the nurses, who have urged the board not to approve the budget until the sides agree on a contract.
The hospital's 1,800-member nurses' union has worked without a contract for nearly two months. The labor force is asking for increased staffing, a $15 minimum wage for all support staff and a 22 percent pay increase over three years, according to union organizer Meredith Knowles. In a bargaining session last week, the hospital offered a 15 percent increase over three years for most nurses.
The negotiations have spilled into the budget approval process. Most of the 330 public comments the Green Mountain Care Board received about the hospital's budget centered around its bargaining with nurses, board members said in introductory remarks. But potential changes in nurses' salaries shouldn't affect the board's decision, explained chair Kevin Mullin.
"A variance of a few million in a billion-dollar budget is something that we expect the hospital to manage," he said.
Still, nurses picketed on the steps of City Hall for an hour leading up to the hearing. Hospital officials trickled into the building as a protester with a bullhorn led chants of "Safe staffing saves lives" and "Overworked and underpaid." There was no sign of hospital CEO and president John Brumsted; picketers speculated that he was able to slip in via a side door.
That was the point that protester Mary Flemming, a nurse for 25 years, said she hoped to drive home to the board. She wasn't satisfied with the hospital's latest salary offer and said nurses would be willing to strike again. Still, Flemming added that talks were moving in the right direction. "We feel like the hospital has just come to a place where we can talk," she said.
Until then, nurses would keep advocating for their cause, union organizer Knowles said.
“Today is about raising public awareness about where the hospital’s priorities are,” Knowles said, noting that administrators say high salaries are necessary to attract qualified candidates. "Nurses would like to see that logic extended to front-line services," she said.
The nurses and the hospital have yet to set a new date to return to the bargaining table, Knowles said.
The Green Mountain Care Board will decide whether to approve the UVM Medical Center budget by mid-September, and will issue a written decision two weeks later.
Correction, August 22, 2018: A previous version of this story included an inaccurate Meredith Knowles quote.