Vermont nurses continue the fight for new contract

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Pressure is mounting for the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) in Burlington to come to an agreement on a new contract with its nurses. The nurse members of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals (VFNHP) have been negotiating for months for safe staffing and competitive wages at the hospital. Their current contract expired July 9.

Last month, the nurses sent letters to each member of the UVMMC board of trustees to update them on bargaining and to ask them to assist in moving the process along. Allie Stickney, chair of the board, responded and denied the nurses' request. Days later, the nurses held a two-day strike.

On Aug. 13, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called on the UVMMC board of trustees "to take a more active role in the contract negotiations between management and the nurses' union."

"For most people, the nurses are the hospital. They are also our neighbors, friends and family," Sanders said in a letter to Stickney. "Vermonters want to see them paid fairly and treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. No hospital can operate effectively without a strong and highly motivated nursing workforce," said Sanders. "Yet, UVMMC—the largest and most important component of Vermont’s healthcare delivery system—is facing a serious nursing crisis."

Vermont nurses rally

Sanders referred to the more than 170 vacancies at the hospital. The UVM Medical Center is the largest hospital in Vermont, which ranks 47th in nurse pay levels among all states (when adjusted for cost of living). Because of this, the hospital is consistently understaffed.

Staffing levels and wages have been the focus of bargaining because competitive wages will help address the acute staffing problem and make it easier to recruit and retain nurses. A recent online survey conducted by the VFNHP found that it often takes months to obtain a medical appointment at the hospital.

These problems parallel a key issue the union has been raising during ongoing contract negotiations, says VFNHP President Laurie Aunchman. "Our union is the check and balance on UVMMC, which needs to step up its game and improve its practices for patients and nurses," she says. "The public ranks nurses as among the most trusted workers. The hospital needs to listen to what we are saying. We are reporting real patient care problems that need to be fixed."

AFT Vermont's executive board recently voted to close the union’s accounts with the New England Federal Credit Union because two hospital trustees are also members of the credit union's board of directors. The union’s executive board asked VFNHP members to join them in closing their accounts as well.

Deb Snell, president of AFT Vermont and executive vice president of the VFNHP, noted that UVMCC board members have a "unique influence on the hospital's direction," including contract negotiations. "AFT Vermont wants to do business with companies whose board members have the best interests of our community in mind," said Snell during a press conference announcing the decision.

Negotiations between the VFNHP and the hospital resumed on Aug. 13.

[Adrienne Coles]