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UVM Health Network workers say wages compromising quality of care

Published: Jul. 21, 2021 at 5:39 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Nurses with the UVM Health Network are back on Burlington’s streets demanding fair compensation. Professionals on both sides of Lake Champlain are asking the administration to address staffing shortages and retention.

Health care workers say they’re burned out. They say the current staffing situations at both the Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital and the UVM Medical Center are unacceptable.

Just as they did three years ago, nurses and techs say pay increases will put a stop to substantial turnover rates and create a safer environment for everyone involved.

“Our corporate headquarters is putting profits before patients,” said Michael Bernier, an MRI technologist at the UVM Medical Center.

That was the theme of Wednesday’s speakout, where the New York State Nurses Association and the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals combined voices. They say the UVM Health Network’s wages are compromising the quality of care.

“Any one of us, our loved ones, our family members could be a patient at any time. And right now, I don’t envy our patients,” said Holly Benoit, an inpatient pharmacist at CVPH.

That’s because nurses and health care professionals at both CVPH in Plattsburgh and the UVM Medical Center in Burlington say they feel overworked and underpaid.

While CVPH faces staffing and service cuts, UVMMC is struggling to keep staff on the floor, filling Vermont’s vacancies with travel nurses.

The network says it is experiencing about a 33% shortage. Nearly half of the positions are entry-level roles and nursing represents about a quarter of overall hiring needs.

Speakers say the struggles are slightly different but they’re all fighting the same fight against the same employer, the UVM Health Network.

“We may be divided by the lake but we’re united caring across our communities,” said Dea Lacey, an RN at CVPH.

Right now, CVPH employees are in contract negotiations with the UVM Health Network to ensure safe staffing levels.

They say cutbacks in the North Country due to financial problems are delaying essential services, forcing them to ship patients over to Burlington.

Meanwhile, Burlington workers are feeling the pressure down the pipeline.

In 2018, UVMMC nurses signed off on a new labor contract to increase average pay by 16% over three years.

At the height of the pandemic, the Vermont union asked to extend that contract to July 2022, which also included a bump.

Now, UVMMC and the union are trading new wage proposals bargaining beyond agreement.

“The hospital knows that paying us more and paying us what we’re worth will get us to work,” said Rachel Foxx, an RN at UVMMC. “We’re doing it for our patients but we also need to do it for our families.”

The UVM Health Network did not agree to an interview but CEO and President Dr. John Brumsted responded to the unions’ concerns in a statement saying, “Our Network remains committed to partnering with union representation at Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital and UVM Medical Center to support our people and to identify solutions to the staffing challenges we face.”

He also stresses recruiting and retaining health care professionals is not a specific problem to the network. Staffing shortages in hospitals is a national crisis.

Union leaders argue the solution is simple-- prioritize paying personnel more.

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