Porter nurses in talks for a new contract: Hospital budget calls for seven new RNs

MIDDLEBURY — Porter Medical Center nurses and management are trying to hammer out a new contract that could soon affect a larger staff.
As reported in the Addison Independent on July 20, the proposed fiscal year 2018 PMC budget calls for adding seven new registered nurse positions to the current staff of 145. Porter officials believe a bolstered nursing staff would help the organization shave around $2.5 million in what it is currently spending for more costly travellers.
Travelling nurses are fully trained professionals who come to work at a specific location for a specific period. They are temporary, not long-term, employees.
Alice Leo is president of the Porter Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, which last week held its third bargaining session with Porter management for a new pact to succeed the union’s first-ever deal that expires on Sept. 30.
Leo said she and her colleagues support the call for new staff, but they also want to work with management in devising ways to keep existing nurses on board. She said Porter Hospital’s medical-surgery unit recently lost four nurses who had been there for “seven months or less.”
“I have spoken with these nurses and asked the question, ‘Why did you leave?’ and they said it was a lack of a good orientation, and feeling that management isn’t listening or supporting their concerns,” Leo said during a recent phone interview.
With that in mind, Leo said management “really needs to pay attention to retaining the people we already have.”
Porter has been rebounding from a rather tumultuous 2016, during which the organization cut ties with former CEO Lynn Boggs, laid off more than a dozen nurses and had an awkward rollout of a new compensation system for its physicians. And like most small community hospitals, PMC was facing tremendous budget challenges.
The organization has regained its equilibrium under the leadership of its new president, Dr. Fred Kniffin, and through its affiliation with the University of Vermont Health Network. But Kniffin has spent much time recruiting new physicians and staff to replace employees who elected to leave during the rough times.
Now he and his colleagues want to keep those new hires.
Kniffin made employee retention the thrust of his June 5 “weekly message” emailed to the hospital community.
“You may have heard me say the goal of 2016 was ‘stabilize and rebuild,’” he wrote in his message. “2017 needs to be about retention of our workforce, our most valuable resource.  Having experienced 2016, we all know what high turnover looks like — it is disruptive to us all, to operations, and most important to our patients. On a personal level, at this time last year, I was so focused on recruiting there was little time for anything else.”
He noted some workers switch jobs for factors an employer can’t compete with — such as substantially higher pay and being closer to family.
“What we need to eliminate is avoidable turnover,” Kniffin said. “We don’t want good people leaving PMC.”
Kniffin has asked Porter’s human resources department to help craft an employee retention plan to “make Porter the best place you could ever want to work.”
Leo said the nurses’ union has floated some suggestions on ways to develop staff longevity. In general, the union has urged PMC management to improve its employee orientation procedures and boost staff-patient ratios in some of the hospital units, according to Leo.
“Our number one concern is safe staffing,” Leo said.
Porter officials have yet to specify where the seven new RN hires would be assigned. Leo pointed to the operating room and medical-surgical unit as having had particularly rapid turnover in recent months. She added there have been a “couple dozen” RN openings at Helen Porter Health Care & Rehabilitation.
Porter spokesman Ron Hallman believes the new hires will add stability throughout the organization.
“This plan creates a little more depth in our nursing staff so that if we have a shortage or a sickness or someone out on medical leave, we don’t have to immediately pick up the phone and call the travellers,” Hallman said.
The nurses’ union and PMC administration will hold another bargaining session this week. The sides have not yet come to consensus on a contract length.
“We have some basic guiding principles,” Kniffin said of the negotiating process. “Number one, our nurses are absolutely mission-critical. We can’t get by without them. Second, patients and families are at the center of all of our decisions. And three, we are going to treat all or our employees equitably. So if the union comes to us with an idea that’s a really good idea for our nurses, we have to look at and as, ‘Is that a good idea for all our employees?’”
Leo remains optimistic the union and management will reach an accord.
“We are staying very positive,” she said. “Porter is a great community hospital and facility.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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