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The move for more money - Part 2

Published: Jan. 21, 2022 at 5:02 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Though the signs of Vermont’s nursing shortage were evident prior to the pandemic, the issue is now under a microscope, as hospitals big and small struggle to fill the vacancies left by nurses quitting or hitting the road for higher pay.

“I think the local hospital really has their pulse on how exhausted people are and how we need to recognize them -- because they are the heartbeat of what we do,” said Jill Markowski, vice president of nursing services at Gifford Hospital in Randolph.

The small hospital last year raised the starting rate for registered nurses by between 21 and 31 percent. But Markowski says they could never compete with compensation at larger hospitals in the region, which is why they focus on investing in staff in other ways. “Show them that they are someone we respect,” Markowski said. “Every single person feels that connection to that bigger goal and vision.”

Markowski says leaders reinforce the importance of professional development, resilience resources, and strong camaraderie. But reliance on travel nurses, who are only on assignment for about 13 weeks -- which is about the time it takes to fully orient permanent personnel -- shakes the foundation of that culture. Gifford last year had to hire 22 travelers, which is two times more than the previous three years. There are currently 18 open nursing positions of all levels and four active additional requests for travelers.

“We want permanent nurses here who are dedicated and committed to our patients and our community and our hospital, and the traveling nurses are far more transitory than that, and it’s not the same,” Markowski said.

It’s the same story at all of Vermont’s 17 hospitals no matter the size. Deb Snell, president of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, says the issues at smaller facilities are only amplified at larger ones. “It’s sad. I see nurses come into work and they just are dejected or angry,” she said.

Snell says the exhaustion is so extreme and turnover is so high among her union members at the UVM Medical Center, they feel expendable and interchangeable. There are 361 travelers -- mostly nurses -- working at UVMMC right now and the facility could use another 105. Typically, travelers have accounted for three to five percent of the hospital’s staff. But recently that number has ballooned to as high as 22%. There are about 300 permanent nurse vacancies.

Peg Gagne, UVMMC’s chief nursing officer, says the administration is developing new and creative strategies to attract staff. But in the meantime, somebody has to fill the roles to keep the hospital running.

Reporter Christina Guessferd: It seems so simple. Instead of paying a traveler double, raise the wage for permanent nurses. Why is it not necessarily that simple?

Peg Gagne: We can’t just send all of the travelers back and take that pot of money and redirect it to our own staff. And with the number of openings that we have, it’s going to take some time to start to rebuild the ranks.

Gagne says that ultimately she wants employees to know they are valued, but the facility is facing unprecedented challenges. Before the pandemic, an average of 375 patients filled beds daily. Now, the number is more than 440, so the hospital is also trying to care for a volume of people it wasn’t prepared to accommodate.

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The move for more money: Vt. struggles to address nursing crisis

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