BURLINGTON, Vt., July 6 – Flanked by members of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) demanded Friday afternoon that the UVM Medical Center administration address the nursing crisis at the hospital.
“As anyone who has ever been in a hospital bed knows, nurses are the backbone of any hospital,” Sanders said. “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.”
Sanders noted that there are currently more than 170 vacancies for nurses and other health care professionals represented by the union. “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,” Sanders said. “Further, with a nursing workforce that is understaffed and overworked, morale suffers and the nurse turnover rate is higher than it should be.”
Because of the nursing shortage, 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 just to keep the hospital running.
Sanders said the Medical Center has had trouble attracting and retaining nurses because – according to research done by the nurses’ union – Vermont currently ranks 47th in the nation in terms of nurse wages adjusted for the cost of living.
The current contract covering approximately 1,800 registered nurses, nurse practitioners and licensed practical nurses (RNs, NPs, and LPNs) expires July 9. After more than 17 negotiating sessions, no agreement has been reached on the nurses’ request for fair and competitive wages, a hospital-wide $15 minimum wage and improved staffing levels to ensure quality patient care.
“We have been in negotiations since the end of March and the hospital is not hearing us,” said Julie MacMillan, lead negotiator for the nurses. “We are not asking for Boston wages or New York City wages. We are looking for parity within our own network. We are looking for parity with Plattsburgh wages.”
“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,” Sanders said. “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,” Sanders said. “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?”
Sanders said “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.”
CEO compensation at UVM Medical Center has doubled in the past decade, while average employee compensation, not including doctors, has remained essentially flat.
The union announced a two-day strike for next week, barring a breakthrough in contract negotiations with hospital management. The strike is set to begin July 12.
“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,” Sanders said. “To avoid that strike, the hospital must take seriously the nurses’ demands for fair and competitive wages.”
To read Sanders’ prepared remarks, click here.
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