Statement on UVM Medical Center Nursing Crisis

I am delighted to be here today with Deb Snell, president of AFT Vermont who has been a registered nurse at the UVM Medical Center for 19 years and is with the Medical Intensive Care Unit; Laurie Aunchman, president of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals who has been a registered nurse at the hospital for 39 years and is in the Surgical, Pediatric, Neurosurgical Intensive Care Unit and Julie MacMillian, lead negotiator, who has been a Registered Nurse at the Medical Center for 18 years and is with the Post Acute Care Unit.

I want to thanks all of these nurses, and all the other nurses here, for their years of service to our community.

As anyone who has ever been in a hospital bed knows, nurses are the backbone of any hospital.  At UVM Medical Center – and at hospitals all across this state and nation – nurse practitioners, registered nurses, and licensed practical nurses work around the clock to provide high quality, compassionate care for their patients. 

Without a strong, dedicated nursing workforce, no hospital can provide the quality care patients deserve.  Patients know that, doctors know that and administrators know that. 

And yet, today, we have a significant nursing crisis here at the Medical Center – Vermont and the region’s largest hospital. As I understand it, right now, there are 170 vacancies for nurses and other health care professionals represented by the union. 170 vacancies.

What that means is that, with this high level of vacancies, nurses are stretched beyond what is good for them or for their patients.  They simply cannot provide the quality of care their patients need and deserve.  Further, with a nursing force that is understaffed and overworked, morale suffers and the nurse turnover rate is higher than it should be.

On top of that, some of the veteran nursing staff haven’t gotten a raise in many, many years.  Not only are these experienced nurses providing critical care to patients with extremely complex medical issues but, very importantly, they are also training the next generation of nurses. 

Interestingly, because of the nursing shortage here, the Medical Center is forced to employ, at great expense, hundreds of “travel nurses” over the course of the year who come here for 13-week stints to keep the hospital running. 

Why is it so hard for the Medical Center to attract and retain nurses?  Well, maybe it has something to do with the fact that – according to research done by the nurses – Vermont currently ranks 47th in the nation in terms of nurse wages adjusted for the cost of living.  Yes, 47th

This is not a complex problem.  If the Medical Center doesn’t pay competitive wages for the vitally important work nurses do, we will continue to see high vacancies and high turnover.  If nurses don’t earn enough to live in dignity and raise a family here in Vermont, we will continue to lose them to other states that pay better.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about keeping our youth in Vermont, and encouraging more young families to move here.  Well, how about making it more attractive to live and work here for the nurses who help keep us healthy, and who treat us when we are sick? 

Instead of paying travel nurses for 13-week stints at exorbitant rates, the Medical Center should invest in good paying permanent nursing jobs.  Jobs that allow nurses to set down roots in Vermont, start families here, and build their lives in the very same communities as their patients.

I am heartened to see that more than 90 doctors at the Medical Center understand this and have stepped up to support the nurses.  They know that they, as doctors, can’t do their jobs without a dedicated, well-staffed nursing workforce at their side.  They know that when the nursing staff is strong, patients get better care.

It is telling to me that the nurses are also pushing for a hospital wide $15 minimum wage for Licensed Nursing Assistants – who are not even covered under the contract that is being negotiated. 

LNAs are the hard working folks who help patients with everything from eating to personal hygiene to moving around. They also keep family members comfortable during some of the most stressful times in their lives.  It is beyond comprehension that there are LNAs at the Medical Center who make less than $13 an hour.

Let me end by saying this: At the end of the day, like so many other issues, this contract negotiation is about priorities. 

I find it a bit hard to believe that the hospital has enough money to pay nearly $11 million to 15 administrators – including more than $2 million to the CEO – but doesn’t have enough money to pay their nurses the same wages as nurses earn just across the lake in Plattsburgh, where the cost of living is much lower.

I find it even harder to believe the Medical Center when it says it has to pay these inflated administrators’ salaries to attract the best and brightest people to run the hospital.  Well, how about paying competitive wages to attract the best and the brightest nurses who actually care for patients?

The fact is, CEO compensation at the hospital has doubled in the past ten years, while average employee compensation – not including doctors – has remained essentially flat.  That sends the message that the hospital – which made more than $75 million in profits in 2015 – prioritizes it executives way more than it values its workforce. 

I think we all agree that we want to avoid a strike.  I know the nurses do; I know patients, family members and our community does; and I want to believe that the Medical Center does as well.  

To avoid that strike, the hospital must take seriously the nurses’ demands for fair and competitive wages.  And they must send actual decision-makers to negotiating sessions, which I understand is not the case currently.

But above all else, the hospital must treat nurses with respect and dignity for the incredibly difficult and important work they do.