UVM Medical Center, support staff union reach agreement

Published: 9/25/2023 8:01:10 AM
Modified: 9/25/2023 8:00:21 AM

BURLINGTON — The University of Vermont Medical Center’s newest union, representing over 2,000 support staff members, is on the cusp of its first contract after reaching an agreement with hospital management early Thursday morning.

A 12-hour bargaining session ran all night and ended around 5 a.m. Thursday after the parties finally landed the tentative agreement. Twelve hours after that, many members of the union gathered on Colchester Avenue in Burlington to celebrate by hosting a rally.

As union members ate plates of barbecued chicken in matching red union shirts, drivers passing by honked their horns, inciting cheers and applause.

“It’s a historic first contract,” said Jacob Berkowitz, a staffing specialist at the hospital who was involved in negotiations. “We achieved a $20 minimum wage, something that we set out from the very beginning to do.”

According to a summary of the agreement shared by union members, wages had previously been as low as around $15 an hour. The wage hikes represent an increase of 22%, on average. A statement from a hospital spokesperson confirmed the amount.

Many union members interviewed on Thursday afternoon pointed to the wage increases as the biggest win. Some also noted that the union includes many immigrants and BIPOC Vermonters, calling that another reason to celebrate better pay.

“This is going to make it so these families — especially these new American families, immigrant families or working-class families — can survive. The kids can survive. They can live better lives,” said Harly Rodriguez, a mental health technician.

While the agreement won’t be finalized until union membership ratifies it, some on the bargaining team said they were confident that would happen. A vote is expected to occur before the end of the month, according to Lou Levesque, a bargaining team leader. The contract would last for three years.

The new union represents a wide variety of employees in support roles at the hospital and associated clinics: nursing assistants, food service workers, custodians and others.

Annie Mackin, a hospital spokesperson, said in an emailed statement on Thursday that first contracts often take over a year to complete. Support staff members voted to unionize in January. Mackin said the hospital was pleased with the agreement.

“We are proud to confirm that we were able to reach a tentative agreement on a first contract with the unions representing UVMMC Support Staff and a group of new technical employees,” she said. “In addition to base wages, this agreement addresses many areas of priority, including differentials, urgent pay, on-call pay, scheduling time off, health and safety and job security.”

Bargaining sessions have been ongoing for months. During that time, union members made a public push for a contract, holding rallies and speaking out during public comment at Burlington City Council meetings.

Levesque said in an interview on Thursday that the final bargaining session began around 5 p.m. Wednesday at the hospital. She didn’t leave the building until 5:30 a.m. on Thursday.

During the marathon session, as the two sides of the table made progress on wages and other items, one sticking point emerged on employee health care coverage, Levesque said. The union hoped to get a sliding scale premium but in the end settled for the status quo, in which full-time staff members pay 20% toward premiums.

“We recognize that this contract didn’t get everything that we wanted, needed or deserved,” Levesque said.

The hospital did agree to having representatives from all unions present serve on a committee that will examine improving healthcare coverage, according to a summary of the contract agreement.

A rally and soup kitchen held on Thursday afternoon at the headquarters of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals was planned prior to the final bargaining session. One member of the negotiating team said the event could have gone two ways.

“The original goal was either it’d be a celebration for a good contract, or it would be a rally for people that can’t afford food,” said Brett Rhodes, a licensed nursing assistant.

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