Nurses Authorize Strike At Vermont’s Largest Hospital
Vermont’s largest hospital could experience its first ever nurses’ strike if a contract agreement is not reached by July 9th.
Leaders of the 1,800 unionized nurses at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington on Wednesday said the majority of members voted to authorize a strike if a contract is not completed by July 9th.
Noah Ponzio is a registered nurse in the inpatient pediatrics unit and a member of the bargaining committee. He reports that of the nearly three-quarters of the 1,800 nurses who voted, 94 percent authorized a strike if necessary. “The vast majority of the 1,800 nurses at this organization absolutely want the management team and the community to know that they are willing to do whatever it takes to get a contract that provides for safe staffing and that allows for us to have the recruitment and the retention that we need in order to provide the care that we want to give and the care that our community deserves.”
Ponzio explains that there has been a reduction in nurses due to retirements and there are fewer nurses entering the profession. He says part of the contract negotiations target the ability to recruit and retain nurses. “We need to offer salary and benefits to nurses and to the staff that we rely on so that we can recruit people here and retain here. So benefits and compensation is one piece of that and then a type of contract that allows for the proper amount of staffing.”
University of Vermont Medical Center President and CEO Eileen Whalen says while she is concerned she notes that the contract process is ongoing, and she doesn’t believe a strike will be necessary. “This is not a strike vote. It’s an authorization for the negotiations team to call for a strike if we don’t make progress. But we are very confident and I think that if we stay at the table continue this really good dialogue and if necessary bring in a mediator we’re going to get where we need to be.”
Whalen says the hospital is planning alternative staffing for a possible strike. "We believe that if we get a strike notice it will be for a two day notice, is what the union has told us at this point, and it will only include University of Vermont Medical Center. We would not be bringing nurses from our other affiliate organizations to the hospital. We will rely on outside expertise to help us recruit and bring in nurses that are highly trained and skilled to take care of our patient population.”
Whalen adds that should a strike occur the hospital intends to maintain all services. “Our planning process is that we will continue to run business as usual and that we have the support of our physicians to work with us through this process. But it is not our intent and we have not begun to down-staff or down-schedule clinics and/or any other um we are a full service organization and have to maintain our service to this community.”
Whalen says the union is asking for 28.5 percent increase in compensation over three years while the hospital is offering 7 percent over three years. Ponzio agrees the two sides face a wide gap. “It still feels like we’re very far apart particularly in the compensation area. And again I want to say that compensation is really about driving recruitment and retention and safety. And that’s the part where we’re especially concerned. We’re feeling like at this point we have not gotten management to agree to a compensation package that will allow us to recruit and retain and provide safe staffing levels.”
Negotiations began in March and there are four sessions scheduled before the current contract, which affects registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and advanced practice nurses, expires on July 9th. A mediator is not currently involved.