Vermont nurses and hospital still bargaining over staffing, wages

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June 1 marked the last scheduled weekly bargaining session between the nurse members of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals and their hospital, the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington. Although no additional bargaining dates have been set, a gap remains between the nurses’ demands and the hospital’s position.

The nurses want the hospital to provide competitive wages and safe staffing. Overall staffing is a priority of the nurses—not just nurse staffing. The lack of staff in supportive roles, the nurses say, makes it harder for them to focus on caring for patients. And when it comes to pay, the nurses are fighting for livable wages for everyone at the facility, including environmental services workers, unit secretaries and licensed nurses' aides.

"The hospital is dealing with high acuity, and the beds are full all the time. We need staff," says Cristina Price, a critical care nurse who works at the hospital. "Recruiting and retaining nurses is difficult because the wages are not competitive. This is a teaching hospital. We have a great group of nurses, the doctors are amazing, and we love our patients and want them to have the best possible outcome. We need help; that’s what we’re telling our hospital."

Nurses tend to internalize the results of unsafe staffing, says Noah Ponzio, a registered nurse at the hospital. “When I’m working at the bedside and there isn’t enough staff, I end up feeling like a bad human being,” he says. "If a system makes it impossible to work, they say the system is broken. In our system, the nurses blame themselves." Ponzio says the nurses have solutions to addressing the staffing problems but their solutions are being ignored or manipulated, which is disappointing.

On May 12, the nurses took to the streets to raise their concerns with the public. The citizens of Burlington showed their support by signing cards that reveal how their lives have been touched by the nurses who work in the hospital. On that day, the nurses were also joined by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). "It’s been tremendously important to have support from our community and lawmakers," said Ponzio (pictured above). "Vermont has a history of being progressive in many areas, leading the way in health reform."

The nurses were bolstered by the presence of AFT President Randi Weingarten, who joined them on the final day of scheduled bargaining. "Vermont is about caring for its community, and the nurses in this medical center are about caring for its community, and yet this [hospital] administration seems to care only about itself as opposed to the community and the people who have made it successful. That's not the Vermont state of mind," said Weingarten, who pointed out that creating a caring, welcoming environment in the hospital means being able to recruit and retain enough nurses.

"We see a crisis in the making," said Weingarten pointing to the hospital's use of temporary workers and the underpaying of workers in a competitive market. "We know a medical crisis when we seen one; when someone is hemorrhaging, you use sutures not Band-Aids—that's what we're doing in this collective bargaining, making sure we avert a crisis."

The nurses' contract with the hospital expires July 9.

[Adrienne Coles]