UVM nurses are sick of understaffing

May 17, 2018

Matthew Gordon reports on a march by nurses and their supporters who are demanding that the UVM Medical Center give them the pay and staffing that they need.

MORE THAN 600 nurses and their supporters marched to demand safer staffing and increased wages for nurses at the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMC) in Burlington, Vermont.

The Vermont Federation of Nurses and Healthcare Professionals (VFNHP) has criticized hospital executives for ignoring nurses' concerns about unfilled positions, which force nurses to do more work, and high executive compensation. For the last decade, wages have been stagnant despite a significant increase in what the hospital calls "excess revenue": over $10 million yearly since 2015.

The march began at the hospital before moving downtown. The crowd included contingents of several local unions, in addition to members of the International Socialist Organization and Democratic Socialists of America.

"It's important for our nurses to see the Burlington educators come out and support us, to see the people from Plattsburgh and the hospital there come out and support us," said Deb Snell, who is vice president of VFNHP. "You have to recognize that we're all standing for the same thing."

Nurses in Burlington, Vermont, on the march for a fair contract
Nurses in Burlington, Vermont, on the march for a fair contract (Tula Adie)

The feeling of solidarity was echoed by many nurses, including Christine Moon. "It's empowering to see everyone united and taking a stand for economic justice," Moon said. "Seeing all the unions connecting and standing united is great. It's sending out a message that we need more nurses and better wages."

The mood of the march was celebratory and energetic, but the marchers were just as quick to dish on their working conditions: "People are tired of being called on their days off," Deb Snell commented. "I got two calls to come in while I was at the rally."

Hospital executives were also in the line of fire: A favorite slogan of the day was "Hey Brumsted, what do say? How many bucks have you made today?" UVMC President John Brumsted's salary is $2.1 million.

THE MARCH ended next to the future site of CityPlace, a $225 million city redevelopment project that includes new office spaces. The hospital plans to relocate 500 employees there at an estimated cost of over $6 million. Speakers were quick to point out the juxtaposition between this and the executives' claims that there is no money available for a raise for nurses.

One source of their disgust was not only the frivolous use of funds, but how clearly it illustrates the divide between the bureaucracy and the nurses.

Tristin Adie, a member of the nurses' bargaining team and of the International Socialist Organization, spoke to the effects of high workloads and decreasing staff: "For nurse practitioners, there are never, ever enough hours in the day. Talk to any of us, and you'll hear about how we work through our lunch hours, work in the evenings, and work on weekends trying to catch up."

All of this, while hospital management considers a move to offices with a lakefront view and within walking distance of some of Burlington's more upscale restaurants and stores.

Speakers identified the low wages offered to support staff as the primary culprit in the labor shortage. Nurse practitioners may have to work as long as 15 years to reach the national average salary for their position, and management's proposal includes a decrease in pay for new nurses.

"We have nurse practitioner positions that sit open for months and even years, which means our patients suffer because it's much harder to get timely appointments in many clinics--and we suffer because we're trying to cover the shortfall," Adie continued.

The union's response has been to support a $15 minimum wage for all hospital workers, a proposal rejected by the hospital executives.

Speakers at the rally also included Sen. Bernie Sanders, who joined the event at its conclusion and was greeted with a roar of applause from the marchers.

The successful march is only one of the first steps in the nurses' journey. Weekly bargaining sessions will continue through May, and the gap between the union's demands and management's offer remains an open question.

Some nurses are already considering a strike in the future. The union has publicly supported the Arizona teachers and the recent three-day strike of workers at the University of California campuses, a struggle that included many hospital workers.

"I've heard more 'yeses' than 'no's,'" said Kristin Viens, when asked about the possibility of a strike. "I think people have had it. We're making less than we were 10 years ago with the increased cost of living. The hospital, at the last bargaining, showed us that they just don't care. It's about them and their top executives, not about the nurses and the patients."

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