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RYAN MERCER and DAN D'AMBROSIO/FREE PRESS
The lead negotiator for the nurses’ union at the University of Vermont Medical Center said this week the main issues at the center of contract negotiations are the same ones from three years ago: working conditions, pay and staffing levels.
The nurses’ union renegotiates its contract with the hospital every three years. This year’s deadline is early June and the union is planning a rally for Saturday morning.
“What we’re fighting for is giving our nurses a voice in how hospital executives allocate resources,” said Julie MacMillen, who has worked as a nurse at the hospital since 2002. “We’ve seen a lot of investment in properties expanding our network and in electronic health records, but unfortunately nurses’ wages have been stagnant for about a decade.”
UVM Medical Center issued a statement regarding the contract negotiations.
“Our nurses are a key reason the UVM Medical Center consistently ranks among the top academic medical centers in the country for quality of care. As is the case with every contract renegotiation, we are bargaining in good faith, colleague to colleague, and are committed to reaching a fair contract that is of value to our nurses, patients and families,” Chief Nursing Officer Kate FitzPatrick said.
MacMillen said UVM Medical Center has a “huge vacancy rate” for nurses, with 180 open positions. She said that hospital is having a hard time retaining nurses because of relatively low pay and difficult working conditions.
The Vermont Federation of Nurses & Health Professionals, Local 5221, which MacMillen represents has about 1,800 members.
“Our proposal puts money in the base wage to raise up the pay scale,” she said.
The current pay scale for registered nurses, according to MacMillen, is $26.80 per hour to $42.28 per hour; the pay scale for advance practice nurses, also known as nurse practitioners, is $37.85 per hour to $56.69 per hour. For licensed nurse aides, the pay scale is $12.89 per hour to $19.35 per hour.
MacMillen said veteran nurses receive an end-of-the-year bonus, but that it is “very small.”
“The volume of patients has gone up,” MacMillen said. “We serve nearly a million patients a year, and because we’re a network, all network hospitals refer patients to us.”
The University of Vermont Health Network includes five hospitals in addition to the UVM Medical Center. The other hospitals are in Berlin and Middlebury, and three in New York: Elizabethtown, Malone and Plattsburgh.
John Brumsted, president and CEO of the University of Vermont Health Network, has cited increasing numbers of patients as one reason that for the past three years the hospital has generated tens of millions of dollars of revenue above targets established by the Green Mountain Care Board.
MacMillen said the union’s staff proposal would update what is currently in place to reflect not only the increasing numbers of patients, but also their increasingly serious health conditions, referred to as level of “acuity.”
“Think about a frail patient with cancer who can take 20 minutes to get from the bed to the bathroom,” MacMillen said. “If we don’t have someone to do that, it’s taking away from chemotherapy for that patient.”
Most of the union’s proposals are “patient-focused as well as nursing-focused,” according to MacMillen.
MacMillen also complained about a shortage of support staff which she said puts more burden on nurses.
MacMillen wants to see the medical center pay support staff of at least $15 an hour. The support staff is not unionized.
“You can go to McDonald’s and make nearly $15 an hour,” she said. “The work required of housekeepers and LNAs is backbreaking work. We need them. We can’t do our jobs without them.”
The nurses and the hospital had met for six bargaining sessions as of this week, and plan to meet several more times this month. The union has planned a rally for Saturday, marching from the main entrance of the hospital to Church Street in downtown Burlington. As of Friday afternoon, nearly 200 people were planning to attend, according to the union’s Facebook page.
“We have until July 9 to continue to talk,” MacMillen said. “Frankly after that if need be we’re willing to do whatever it takes to get what our patients need as well as the nurses.”
Contact Dan D’Ambrosio at 660-1841 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DanDambrosioVT.
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