NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- A handful of nurses and residents at the Vermont Veterans Home voiced concerns at a public meeting Wednesday over staffing levels, saying it is impacting the care of the veterans living there.
Rachel Fields, a nurse at the home, said she is "greatly concerned about the staffing issues and how they affect the men and women who have proudly served our country." She said nurses are overworked, which is impacting the care of residents.
Another nurse, Winnie Rose, a 14-year employee of the home, said the lack of adequate staffing has made it "increasingly difficult to provide the highest quality care." She said the morale among staff members is low "due to the management team."
"The employees are threatened on an almost daily basis with mandatory overtime," she said. "The care continues to be inadequate. This is not fulfilling the promise and our veterans deserve more."
John Dunham, the Vermont State Employees Association representative for nurses working at the home, said the last four-week work schedule contained 177 open shifts, even before anyone called out of work.
Veterans Home resident David Beatty said he believes staffing levels have impacted the residents. "A lot of times, if you do need something it takes a while for them to get to me or they get tangled up with half a dozen others," he said.
And James Hewitt, another resident, said the home needs more employees, "not people who watch employees do their jobs and criticize." He also complained of mandatory overtime.
"The nursing staff is my family. They care for me. They worry about me. I worry about their stress when they are mandated overtime," he said. "Most of them have got children. Who's going to feed them and make supper if mommy don't come."
Administrator Melissa Jackson said she is working with nurses to find a solution to the their concerns. The staffing levels are being studied to determine if they are appropriate, she said.
"I'm definitely concerned about the mandatory overtime as well," Jackson said. "We're doing in-depth analysis of our schedule. There are some days where we're overstaffed one day and understaffed the next."
The concerns of the nurses are being addressed, she said. "I hear them. They are a great staff and provide great care," she said.
Hiring a scheduler is "a high priority" for the home, according to Jackson. Filling open shifts is typically done on a voluntary basis. On rare occasions a nurse's schedule must be changed, she said.
"I can't just arbitrarily change someone's schedule. What we do here is we always ask for volunteers first," she said. "If there is an emergent situation I can give someone a two-week notice and change their schedule. We do that very, very rarely. Maybe two or three times in the 18 months that I've been here."
Jackson said she hopes to develop a schedule collaboratively with the staff. "I would like it to be something that is mutually agreed on. I would prefer input from the staff, to say, ‘Yes, this is a schedule that works for me,'" she said.
Just $1.4 million of the home's $19 million annual budget comes from the state's general fund. The remaining funding is based solely on the number of residents at the home and is paid by Medicaid, private insurance or the Veterans Administration, she said.
Hiring additional nurses, if the study finds it is warranted, must go through the official state channels.
Rep. John Moran, D-Wardsboro, a member of the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee, said legislation banning mandatory overtime is likely to be introduced again in the next biennium. It did not reach the House floor when it was introduced several years ago, though, he said.
Jackson said a ban on mandatory overtime would be fine if she was provided with the resources to ensure proper staffing. "I would be in support of banning mandatory overtime as long as there are other options to ensure that I have adequate staffing," Jackson said. "I would prefer that my staff not have to have mandatory overtime."
The meeting, sponsored by the Vermont Worker's Center, also featured representatives from nursing unions in Burlington, New York and Massachusetts. Those speakers offered even more harsh criticism of the management team.
Jackson said she is focused on the concerns and needs of her staff and residents, however.
"I know that I have the best interests of the veterans at heart, as does my staff. I think that as long as we, as a group, focus on that, that's all that matters. People from the outside are more than welcome to come in and critique our appearance, but what was most important to me of what was said was what my veterans said and what my staff said," she said. "As a wife of a veteran, as a daughter of a veteran, as a granddaughter of a veteran, my family history goes back, I know that the veterans get great care. In any organization there are ways to improve, and that's what we're striving for."