Nurses and health professionals at UVM Medical Center (UVMMC), Porter Medical Center and Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital (CVPH) in Plattsburgh took the lead this year in fighting for safe staffing and quality patient care amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.
The challenges came one after another. On top of a pre-existing staff shortage, in October 2020 UVMMC’s electronic health records system was hit by a ransomware attack that left it incapacitated for nearly four weeks, with ripple effects still being felt months later.
For inpatient X-ray technologist Mike Popovitch and his colleagues, the cyberattack was the last straw. “It was eye-opening for all of us to see what each department was going through. Over the years, conditions didn’t improve, and the fixes were simply Band-Aids,” said Popovitch. “That’s when I said we need to do something about it.”
Popovitch helped to lead an organizing drive of 230 imaging techs to join Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals-AFT Vermont (VFNHP), which already represented 2,400 staff at the hospital. In April, they overwhelmingly won their union election, and in October, after months of bargaining, ratified a negotiated agreement allowing them to be covered under the existing technical professional contract.
Across the network, and despite years of warnings from the union, short staffing rose to crisis levels this summer, resulting in some patients waiting months for appointments to see a doctor.
On July 21st, VFNHP members rallied for safe staffing outside network CEO John Brumsted’s office, alongside CVPH colleagues represented by the New York State Nurses Association. On August 25th, the union set up 244 pinwheels outside the hospital, representing 244 vacant positions left either unfilled or covered by travelling nurses, and called for higher base wages to recruit and retain staff.
In response to the unions’ protests, and following a damning Seven Days article, the state announced on September 1st an investigation into long wait times at UVM Medical Center.
At the same time, however, state regulators gave the hospital a green light to begin planning a $30 million outpatient surgery facility, despite union concerns that it would only exacerbate staffing issues. “Our members, more than Hospital executives, are undeniably the best voices to weigh in on safe staffing levels for current and future UVMMC patient population and whether this project will serve the public good,” wrote VFNHP and AFT-Vermont President Deb Snell, an ICU nurse at the hospital.
Nurses and health professionals aren’t just waiting around for the state to fix the problem. In August the union launched a social media campaign, describing for community members the day-to-day impacts of working during a public health emergency while short-staffed. On October 10th, VFNHP held a live-streamed roundtable discussion on staffing conditions at UVMMC, inviting a number of lawmakers to hear from health professionals and discuss policy solutions.
Sarah Girome, vice president of organizing and an outpatient neurology nurse, contrasted the priorities of the hospital administration with the needs of frontline providers. “Patients don’t care about the projects and things that we’re going to do years from now. Today, right now, they care about the fact that they’re not getting the care that they deserve.”
With their contract expiring next July, nurses are gearing up for another round of bargaining with the staffing crisis firmly in their sights–and this time, with the added weight of 230 more union colleagues at UVMMC who have their back.