Deb Snell, president of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, speaking last year
University of Vermont Medical Center nurses will receive 20 percent raises over the next two years under a wage agreement aimed at stabilizing the hospital's workforce.
The deal, approved Friday, will immediately bump nursing salaries 10 percent before increasing them 5 percent in October and another 5 percent a year later. The medical center will also pay $5,000 retention bonuses to unionized technical employees, excluding imaging technicians, who reached a separate deal last year.
The agreement comes two months before the Burlington hospital and its nurses’ union plan to begin negotiating the rest of their contact, which expires in July. The parties took the unusual step of hashing out wages up front because of the hospital's prolonged staffing crisis, they said at a press conference on Monday.
“This was unchartered ground for both sides,” UVM Medical Center president and chief operating officer Dr. Stephen Leffler said. “Both of us had to take some leap of faith to do this, but I'm very happy that we were able to work with them getting these wages out now. We're hopeful they'll help retain our staff, help us recruit new staff, and build strong momentum going into the rest of negotiations.”
UVM Medical Center nurses have long maintained that they don’t make enough to afford to live in expensive Chittenden County, and wage negotiations with the hospital have often been contentious affairs.
A two-day nursing strike in 2018 ended once the hospital agreed to raise base salaries an average of 16 percent. But the nurses said their pay remained too low, and those feelings only intensified as a wave of retirements and resignations pushed the hospital’s nursing vacant rate up to 22 percent, double what it was pre-pandemic.
The hospital and union agreed last summer to extend their previous contract for a year given the uncertainty of the pandemic. Representatives then began meeting in December with a goal of crossing wages off the bargaining list.
They hit a wall almost immediately: Nurses rebuked a nearly identical proposal to the one accepted last week, bristling at the hospital’s insistence that they forgo negotiating any other part of the contract beyond wages until 2024. The new deal contains no such condition.
Typical nursing salaries range from about $30 to $50 an hour based on experience, according to Deb Snell, president of the Vermont Federation of Nurses & Health Professionals. The average nurse would receive about $3 to $5 more an hour under the agreement.
“Between housing costs in our state and student loans and childcare — those costs are just astronomical,” the longtime UVM nurse said. “So anything we can put in their pocket to ease that and help them stay, for me, personally, is huge. Because I don't want to see any more friends leave.”
Still, the union president wasn’t sure whether it would be enough to persuade her colleagues to stick around. A union survey last year found that three of every four nurses had recently thought about leaving the hospital. “I’m honestly taking a wait-and-see approach,” Snell said.
It’s hard to know how the new salaries at UVM will compare nationally. Nursing wages have been shifting rapidly as hospitals maneuver to compete with the travel market. “Most current data is old within a couple of weeks,” Leffler said.
He believed the new wages would make UVM competitive. But he acknowledged that the hospital would need to “look again carefully as we move forward.”
“I would absolutely agree with that statement,” Snell responded.
The deal is expected to cost about $25 million over the next two years: $15 million for the nursing raises and the rest on the one-time technician bonuses. The hospital didn’t budget for the increases coming into this fiscal year, according to Leffler. But he described it as a necessary expense.
“We can't afford not to do this,” he said. “We need to stabilize our workforce.”
Hospital and union representatives now plan to start meeting in April to hash out the rest of the contract. The two sides have tentatively agreed to pursue an agreement that would expire in 2024 instead of a more common three-year deal, because of the volatility of the market. Numerous other big-ticket items remain beyond base wages, from on-call pay to time-off policies to language about crisis staffing.
Hospital leaders appear optimistic that they’ll be able to secure a deal.
“We really do want all the same things,” Leffler said. “We want to have a strong nursing workforce, tech workforce. We want to have the least number of travelers that we reasonably can. We want to be here to provide great care to our community. All of us want that.”