UVM Medical Center Nurses to Hold Strike Authorization Vote Amid Contract Negotiations | Health Care | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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UVM Medical Center Nurses to Hold Strike Authorization Vote Amid Contract Negotiations


Published June 14, 2024 at 6:19 p.m.

Deb Snell, president of the Vermont Federation of Nurses & Health Professionals, at a rally in 2021. - FILE: COLIN FLANDERS ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Colin Flanders ©️ Seven Days
  • Deb Snell, president of the Vermont Federation of Nurses & Health Professionals, at a rally in 2021.
Nurses at the University of Vermont Medical Center will vote next week to determine whether they’re prepared to walk off the job in the name of better pay. It could set the stage for the second strike at the Burlington hospital within the past decade.

The strike authorization vote will begin on Monday and last nearly a week. If successful, it would allow the nurse union’s bargaining team to call for a work stoppage should negotiations over a new contract sour.

The Vermont Federation of Nurses & Health Professionals, which represents more than 2,000 nurses at the UVM Medical Center, said it has called for the vote because the two sides are nowhere close to a deal with just weeks before their existing contract expires on July 9.

Wages and benefits are the biggest sticking point. The hospital has proposed a combined salary increase of 17 percent over three years.

The union, meanwhile, wants annual increases of 15 percent, 10 percent and 10 percent over the next three years. It’s also trying to increase the number of “steps” built into its contract, which would give nurses more chances to receive pay bumps based on seniority. Some nurses started at UVM as new grads and, now in their forties — with another decade or two ahead of them — have reached the top of the pay scale, according to the union.

Deb Snell, the union’s president, said the demands reflect how costly it has become to live in Chittenden County. Nurses are leaving jobs for better-paying gigs out of state, she said, which exacerbates staffing shortages and leaves the hospital spending big sums on temporary workers.
“A strike is our worst-case scenario — our patients don’t want it and we don’t either,” Snell said in a written statement. “But if our nurses continue to be ignored on our concerns and brushed off at the bargaining table, we will do what we have to for the long term sustainability of our workforce and the health of our community, period.”

The union's threat poses a serious dilemma for the UVM Medical Center, which is under pressure to tighten its belt as regulators seek to reign in Vermont's soaring health care costs. A spokesperson said the union proposal would increase nurse wages by a total of 46 percent over the next three years, which would cost the hospital $200 million.

In a statement on Friday, the hospital struck an optimistic tone.

"We remain committed to bargaining in good faith to reach an agreement as quickly as possible without a strike," the statement read. "We look forward to additional, productive discussions with our union partners and believe we will reach a fair agreement."

Nurses previously staged a two-day strike in 2018 that ended after the hospital agreed to raise their base salaries an average of 16 percent, far higher than the hospital was initially willing to go. Their current contract, signed in 2022, then bumped salaries by a total of 20 percent.
But the union maintains that the Burlington hospital must still do more if it hopes to compete with other major hospitals. Snell pointed to a recent report from trade magazine Becker's Hospital Review that found the average nurse pay in Vermont, when adjusted for the cost of living, is about $37 per hour — close to the bottom nationally.

Sensing that the hospital wasn't likely to budge without pressure, the union recently surveyed members about a potential strike. Of more than 1,200 respondents, 91 percent said they’d be willing to walk off the job to get “the contract we deserve,” Snell said in an interview on Friday.

The union would be required by law to give the hospital a 10-day warning before any work stoppage occurred. The two sides have a few days of bargaining scheduled for later this month, according to Snell, who said she hoped the next discussions would prove fruitful.

“We’re trying to avoid this at all costs,” she said.

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