UVM Medical Center nurses rally ahead of Monday contract negotiations

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) The contracts for nurses at the UVM Medical Center have expired and a planned two-day strike set for Thursday is inching closer.

Hospital administrators late Monday night said in a statement that several hours of face-face negotiations negotiations had been "productive," and that meetings will continue Tuesday at 4 p.m.

Leaders representing the 1,800 nurses union on Monday said negotiations have been contentious. Hospital officials say the union eventually refused to work with the federal mediator Friday, leaving them at a standstill.

"The nurses are standing strong," said Deb Snell with the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals.

With the union and the medical center remain at an impasse over wages. The hospital is offering a 13 percent wage increase over three years. The hospital's offer would bring inpatient nurse salaries to $84,000 per year after three years.

The union is asking for a 24 percent pay increase over three years. "The whole premise of all this is to get nurses here. We need to compete on a national level, and that's what it's going to take to get nurses here," Snell said.

"We do not think that's realistic, and that's been a really significant sticking point. We value our nurses. We think we pay a very competitive rate based on market, and certainly really understand that we want to stay competitive as it relates to that," said Eileen Whalen with the UVM Medical Center.

Monday, several organizations came out in support of the union. It comes on the heels of a Friday endorsement by Senator Bernie Sanders.

"It's very typical of Senator Sanders national message, so no we were not surprised by his message. Dissapointed in that he chose not to support the hospital and/or ask us to be involved or make a statement," Whalen said.

Hospital administrators say they will be bringing in more than 500 replacement nurses if a strike happens Thursday and Friday. Patients will also be allowed to reschedule with surgeons if needed. But nurses say this has made them feel disposable and that the hospital, which is a non-profit, has the money to pay for their pay raise.

"I would really challenge that. One, there are no profits, and two, we are highly regulated for a reason -- to control the cost of healthcare," Whalen said. The president adds that the medical center invests their money back into patient care.

Both parties say they don't want a strike but neither are budging, increasing the possibility of a strike.

"I would characterize it as we both need to get back to the table and we need to get this job done," Snell said.

The nurses union says that if a nurse would like to cross the picket line and work, they can do that. The hospital says some have expressed interest in doing so.

Another negotiation session is planned for Tuesday and both sides say they are ready to find a solution.