UVM nurses restart contract talks

BURLINGTON — University of Vermont Medical Center administrators and the hospital’s unionized nurses have agreed to resume contract negotiations next week.
The two sides are scheduled to meet the evening of July 24 — 10 days after nurses ended a 48-hour strike that the union called amid continued disagreement about salary and staffing issues.
Julie MacMillan, a Registered Nurse and the union’s lead negotiator, said she’d been hoping to restart contract talks a little sooner. But she also said the session is a chance for a fresh start.
“I’m going to go back to the table with a very open mind to try and settle this issue, and I hope that the hospital will do the same,” MacMillan said.
In a statement issued Tuesday, hospital President Eileen Whalen said administrators are “very pleased to be heading back to the table and continuing the search for common ground so we can come to a fair agreement.”
The Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals represents about 1,800 licensed practical nurses, registered nurses and nurse practitioners at Vermont’s largest hospital. The union’s contract expired July 9, and talks broke down on July 11.
Nurses began a two-day work stoppage at 7 a.m. the following morning.
The union contends UVM Medical Center isn’t paying its nurses enough, leading to chronic staffing shortages, nurse burnout and safety concerns. The union has proposed a 23 percent raise over a three-year contract, with annual “step” increases included in that figure.
Whalen contends that the salary request is “unrealistic,” and she has said the hospital’s proposed 13 percent raise is fair. Administrators also say their nurse-vacancy rate is on par with other health care facilities, and they say they’ve hired nearly 100 nurses since March.
The hospital kept most services going during last week’s strike by bringing in hundreds of nurses via a Colorado company that specializes in staffing during health care work stoppages.
Administrators said there were “no significant issues” during the strike. And they also said an inspection by the state Division of Licensing and Protection showed that the hospital was “in compliance” with governmental regulations.
But the strike came at a cost: Whalen has estimated that the hospital was on the hook for about $3 million to cover replacement nurses’ wages, travel and lodging.
The union has not ruled out calling for another strike if talks don’t progress. But when she met with reporters on Friday, Whalen said she wasn’t thinking about a second work stoppage.
“Our focus right now is to come together at the table,” Whalen said. “It is not to develop a contingency plan for another strike.”
MacMillan said UVM Medical Center’s nurses are “happy to be back at work,” and she said the nurses’ return on Saturday morning went smoothly for the most part.
“My goal is to try to help us move forward together,” MacMillan said. “I would like to see us and the hospital try to heal our clearly broken relationship.”

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