Sanders rails against `inflated' executive pay at UVM Medical Center

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BURLINGTON — Nurses at the state's largest hospital who have threatened to strike over a pay dispute have gotten a boost from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Sanders stood with union negotiators at a press conference Friday in a show of support for nurses with the University of Vermont Medical Center who are seeking pay parity with their counterparts in New York state.

The senator chided administrators of the nonprofit Burlington hospital for balking at pay increases for nurses — at the same time executive salaries have ballooned and the hospital has booked $75 million in profits over time.

"At the end of the day, like so many other issues, this contract negotiation is about priorities," Sanders said.

"I find it 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 elsewhere, where the cost of living is in fact lower," Sanders said.

"I find it even harder to believe the medical center says it has to pay these inflated administrator salaries when it has to attract the best and the brightest people to run the hospital," he continued. "Well, how about paying competitive wages to attract the best nurses who actually care about their patients."

Lead negotiators with the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals say they want to be paid at the same rate as their counterparts in Plattsburgh, New York, at the Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital, which, like the UVM Medical Center, is part of the University of Vermont Health Network.

In an interview with VTDigger last month, Eileen Whalen, the president of UVM Medical Center, said the Plattburgh hospital is in a different market and that nurses' pay in Burlington is consistent with national pay rates.

More than 1,800 UVM Medical Center nurses in the union have threatened to go on strike for 48 hours, starting July 12, if UVM Medical Center does not increase their pay by 24 percent over three years. The contract expires Monday, July 9.

Sanders said the only way to prevent a strike is to come to the table and consider the requests of the union.

"To avoid that strike the hospital must take seriously the nurses' demands for fair and competitive wages," he said.

The administration has been planning to replace striking nurses with nearly 600 replacement traveling nurses. The union says that the replacement nurses will cost the hospital $1.2 million a day, not including rooms booked at the Hilton and Hotel Vermont.

Nurses say the low pay at UVM Medical Center has made it difficult for the hospital to fill vacancies. At this point there are 150 openings for nursing positions.

Sanders said the shortage of nursing staff threatens the quality of patient care. The hospital often hires traveling nurses that stay for 13-week periods to fill gaps, he said.

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

Over the course of negotiations, the hospital has proposed salary increases from 7 percent to 13 percent over three years. Administrators say the union's 24 percent hike over three years is "not realistic."

Nurses say the administration has not been willing to reach middle ground.

Meanwhile, nurses say union flyers have been removed and discussions about union matters have been thwarted by supervisors. Members of the union have filed unfair labor practice complaints with National Labor Relations Board.

Hospital officials did not immediately respond to VTDigger's requests for comment on certain claims made by the union.

Michael Carrese, the spokesman for UVM Medical Center, issued a statement after Sanders' press conference.

"As we've said all along, we believe we can reach agreement if both sides stay at the table and we involve a federal mediator, an approach which has worked in the past three negotiations," Carrese wrote.

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