A group of 600 technicians at Vermont’s largest hospital has launched a union-organizing campaign comparable to the one the nursing staff experienced six years ago, a union spokesperson confirmed.
Representatives from the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals and Fletcher Allen Health Care’s hospital technicians — a diverse group who perform duties such as filling prescriptions, operating X-ray equipment, cleaning and sterilizing surgical tools and providing respiratory therapy — met with hospital administrators last week and asked them to sign a “code of conduct” agreement to remain neutral and not engage in antiunion activities.
Although neither side in the talks had much to say as of press time, one hospital tech who’s worked at Fletcher Allen for more than eight years complained that she and her coworkers have long been reluctant to report their concerns about staffing levels and patient safety for fear of “intimidation and retaliation.” This employee, who asked not to be identified, claimed that an internal opinion poll conducted in 2007 found that about one in four hospital employees shared that view. Seven Days could not independently verify her claim; in fact, FAHC spokesman Mike Noble claimed that overall staff satisfaction is up, compared with earlier surveys, and higher than the national average.
If Fletcher Allen’s techs do elect to form a union — in order to hold such an election, at least 30 percent of the staff must sign a card affirming their desire to bargain collectively — they would become the first hospital technicians in Vermont to unionize. Thus far, Fletcher Allen has not engaged in aggressive union-busting efforts or hired an outside consultant to help defeat the campaign. Union officials say hospital administrators have distributed literature to their employees.
“Basically, we’re just looking for them to collaborate with us in educating these employees,” said Karen Quill, vice president of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals. “We feel like we’re the ones who can better inform people about [the pros and cons] of unionizing.”
In 2002, a majority of Fletcher Allen’s nearly 1200 nurses elected to join a union, and signed their first contract in 2003. At the time, the nurses complained they couldn’t provide patients the best quality care because there weren’t enough of them on duty. Fletcher Allen has since increased its nursing staff to nearly 1700 without a comparable increase in its number of beds.
What are the ramifications of another unionized workforce at Fletcher Allen? Not surprisingly, the union contends that if the hospital techs unionize, wages and benefits are likely to improve, not only in Burlington but at Vermont’s 13 other community hospitals as well.
But a ripple effect may be unlikely. Spokespeople at Copley Hospital, Rutland Regional Medical Center and Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington say they’re already competing for talent with larger markets, such as Boston and Albany, N.Y. They all agree that a variety of factors attract hospital techs to one hospital over another, including the overall work environment, the desirability of the area, the housing market, etc.
Typically, unions claim that patients fare better when their caregivers are organized. But assessing a union’s impact on the overall quality of patient care is far more difficult to evaluate than wages, largely because the issue has not been thoroughly studied.
Jeanne Keller, a consultant with the Burlington health-care consulting firm of Keller and Fuller, Inc., suggests that the closest correlation she’s found between hospital staffing levels and the quality of patient care is determined by the age and experience of the average nurse. In short, hospitals with an older and more experienced nursing staff tend to have better patient outcomes than those with younger and less experienced nurses.
“Unions can have an impact on quality of care if they focus on things like giving power to the people on the frontline and having a top-down and bottom-up commitment to patient safety,” Keller adds. For example, the union can improve patient outcomes if they can change basic workplace habits, such as allowing a nurse to tell a doctor to wash his or her hands before touching their patient.
However, Keller is skeptical of union efforts that put too much emphasis on staff-to-patient ratios. “If that’s the focus of the union,” she adds, “they’re missing the boat.”