Opinion: Thousands of eye-opening conversations affect hospital talks

This commentary is by Kenan Avdibegovic of South Burlington and Jordan Bushway of Georgia, UVM Medical Center staff members who are part of the Support Staff United bargaining team.

As UVM Medical Center employees, the past few years have been extremely difficult as we’ve worked diligently to run our region’s largest hospital.

We worked through a cyberattack that froze access to electronic medical records, harm-inducing odors at the Fanny Allen campus, and the fear and uncertainty of serving on the front lines of Covid-19.

Unfortunately, things haven’t gotten better despite Covid “being over.” Widespread burnout and wages significantly below the cost of living have produced high turnover rates that compound the crisis for hospital staff.

That’s why, on Jan. 27, over 2,000 support staff and 220 techs at UVM Medical Center voted overwhelmingly to form our union and negotiate with hospital management to address these problems. We take this process seriously because of the thousands of eye-opening and often alarming conversations we’ve had with our colleagues.

Here are some of our stories:

  • Amber Robertson, operations support specialist in the women’s clinic, a single mother who was living at COTS for the first six months of her employment at UVM Medical Center, said, “I worked very hard to get us out of there. I am fortunate to be living in some of the most affordable housing in Chittenden County — renting from Champlain Housing Trust — but I still struggle to make ends meet with my wages at UVMMC.”
  • Dawn Lavalley, an inpatient licensed nursing assistant, said, “We need safe staffing ratios. Today there were 38 patients on my floor and just two LNAs. While I’m bathing and assisting one patient, my 18 other patients have to wait. I can’t be everywhere all at once — and without adequate staffing, patient care suffers.”
  • Shannon Ayotte and Curtis Lantagne, mental health techs in the emergency department, have both been assaulted at work. Curtis has been hit, kicked, spit on, stabbed and had his life threatened. Shannon remarked at our last bargaining session: “We literally take a beating for this hospital — why wouldn’t management show the same level of loyalty and commitment to us?”

Supporting our staff will make UVM Medical Center a better institution for employees, patients and our community.

Support staff are everywhere at the hospital: When a patient arrives, we check you in; we cook your meals, we clean your rooms and the common spaces; we answer your calls and provide your bedside care; we are on the teams that save lives. We work behind the scenes in a multitude of ways to ensure UVM Medical Center delivers our community the highest-quality care.

Long wait times and delays plague health care in northern Vermont. You’ve experienced it yourself or with a family member or friend. When we have what we need to succeed on the job, the process is smoother, quicker, more personal.

At our bargaining sessions next month, we will make proposals to improve staff and patient safety and ensure livable wages for all UVMMC’s staff.

We expect hundreds of our coworkers to join these sessions because we understand that the outcome will have major impacts on us, the patients we serve, and standards for all working people in the region.

We look forward to reaching an agreement with management that improves recruitment and retention of staff by securing pay equity and livable wages, worker and patient safety, and flexibility for personal and cultural life needs. With a $1.5 billion annual budget, there is more than enough money in the system to meet these goals.

It is time for hospital administrators to prioritize the staff, who are the backbone of this hospital and have been an afterthought for too long. Our goal is to reach an agreement by the end of the summer, but we will take necessary action to have what we need to serve our community in the best way possible. And we are confident that our community is behind us.