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Mediator sought to help forge Proter nurses’ pact

MIDDLEBURY — An impartial federal mediator will help Porter Medical Center and the new nurses’ union negotiate a first-ever contract.
“Last week, Porter Medical Center reached out to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) to inquire about the possibility of having an experienced and impartial federal mediator participate in future negotiating sessions,” Ron Hallman, vice president of development and public relations, confirmed through a written statement on Nov. 5. “The FMCS and the union have agreed to schedule two such sessions in early December with the mediator.”
Folks traveling in Middlebury have, during the past few weeks, received an inkling of the contract talks through roadside “Healthcare we all deserve” signs posted by Porter nurses, who last December voted to unionize as a chapter of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals. As of last week, the union and PMC management had held 21 bargaining sessions since negotiations kicked off this past February.
Hallman said the union has presented a final set of more than 80 proposals that will be hashed out during upcoming meetings. Three such meetings are slated to take place this month, according to Hallman.
“The negotiations to this point have been constructive, positive and at times challenging,” Hallman said. “We believe both sides are negotiating in good faith and are taking this very seriously.”
The Addison Independent on Nov. 4 sat down with three Porter Medical Center nurses who are part of the union’s 15-member bargaining team: Alice Leo, Hilary Hatch and Melissa Brookman. The negotiated contract will cover the more than 140 full- and part-time nurses who work at Porter Hospital, Helen Porter Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, and the network of around a dozen physicians’ offices affiliated with Porter Medical Center.
While the two sides are committed to keeping their specific requests and counter-proposals confidential at this point, it is clear that staffing levels are a primary concern to union representatives.
“Safe staffing for quality patient care — that’s what we’re working toward,” Leo said.
“We’re working toward the goal of having enough time with our patients to deliver quality care, to take care of their physical, their psychological and educational needs,” Hatch added.
And in order to do that, union negotiators believe nurses should have more input in PMC operations, according to Hatch.
“The primary goal is a seat at the table for nurses who deliver first-line, hands-on care, 24/7 — at least in the hospital and in the nursing home,” Hatch said. “We want the power to share in the decisions that drive the quality of the care (nurses) give and the environment in which they give it.”
Hatch listed support of continuing education, professional advancement, comprehensive orientation for new nurses and recruitment/retention of personnel as other issues of prime importance to the union membership.
“When we have a voice, as front-line caregivers, then we can be strong patient advocates,” Leo said. “When we are a voice and are involved in the decision making, the best possible outcomes happen for our patients and the working conditions for nurses will improve.”
Added Brookman: “We respect what management brings to the table and its role in staffing the hospital … But as the people who are with the patients 24/7, we feel like we have something to offer in terms to how to make that happen, so we just want an equal voice.”
Porter Medical Center administrators expressed confidence that patients are currently receiving ample contact with nurses. They presented statistics indicating a range of between 11 and 15 nursing care hours per patient day at Porter between April 2013 and March 2014. That’s a level they said was higher than the eight other community hospitals in the state. Those other hospitals include Copley, Northwestern, Gifford, Mt. Ascutney, North Country, Springfield, Brattleboro and Grace Cottage.
Hatch said many variables go into assessing appropriate staffing.
“Staffing takes into account not only how many nurses there are compared to patients, but support personnel, equipment that’s required, how acute the patients are and how experienced the nurses are — which speaks back to recruitment and retention and orientation,” Hatch said. “It’s a very complex scenario that needs a lot of attention and input from the professionals who work in it every day.”
Charleen Ryan, vice president of patient care at Porter, recently expressed concern about nurses potentially sending signals that care at the hospital might be lacking.
“We have at Porter Hospital recently received questions regarding lawns signs relating to the safe care at Porter,” Ryan wrote in a Nov. 3 letter sent to all PMC staff. “Individual employees, patients and physicians have expressed concern or been approached by the community questioning why the quality or safety of care is being expressed in the form of signage that could potentially undermine the trust of our patients or those who turn to us for care. Healing involves trust and confidence in those who care for you; it is essential.”
Both sides promised to remain in talks as long as it takes to forge an agreement.
“Porter Medical Center is committed to continuing to bargain in good faith and to achieve a first contract that is fair to our staff, fiscally responsible to our organization and focused on our mission and our patients and residents, rather than focusing on any artificial deadlines,” reads a PMC statement provided by Hallman.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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