The union representing 130 nurses at Porter Medical Center in Middlebury has finalized a three-year employment contract with hospital management.
Alice Leo, president of Porter Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, said the new contract will increase pay for nurses while improving working conditions and nurses’ professional development opportunities.
“We’re really happy with what we have,” Leo said. “Of course, there’s always room for improvement, but we’re pretty pleased with what we’ve reached here with Porter.”
Porter Medical Center became part of the University of Vermont Health Network earlier this year. The nursing contract is with Porter Medical Center, not the network, according to Ron Hallman, the spokesperson for Porter Medical Center.
The new contract is the nurse’s second since organizing the union in 2013 and ratifying its first contract in December 2014. The new contract will go into effect Oct. 1 and run through Sept. 30, 2020.
Nurses will receive an 8.5 percent pay increase over three years, and nurses like Leo who have decades of experience but are currently making less than newer nurses will see pay increases.
“With this contract that’s going to be fixed, so within three years, all nurses will be placed on their correct step as far as wages go, and that was important to us for nurses who have been there for a long time,” Leo said.
The hospital will also increase tuition reimbursement to nurses with associate’s degrees who want to get bachelor’s degrees. Hospitals across the country are beginning to encourage nurses to obtain bachelor’s degrees instead of associate’s degrees, according to the New York Times.
Staffing levels were the main issue in negotiations. On Sept. 12, nurses and community members presented a petition calling for safer staffing levels with more than 700 signatures to Dr. Fred Kniffin, the CEO of Porter Medical Center.
Leo said Friday there are not enough nurses at the hospital, and while patients are currently receiving good care, that level of care will not continue if patient loads grow. “You don’t want that feeling when you go home that you gave OK care; it was OK,” she said. “That’s not why you became a nurse.”
Porter Medical Center and the union will set up a Nursing Practice Council, made up of nurses and administrators, to create guidelines for staffing levels within different departments, according to Leo.
The council will hold its first meeting on Nov. 30 and must produce staffing guidelines for Porter’s inpatient unit and nursing home by May 15. New guidelines for other departments must be in place by Sept. 15, 2018.
Leo said the council “has teeth” and gives nurses “a real voice” in staffing levels, and that’s good for the community.
“When we improve the working conditions of nurses, we improve the environment in which we take care of our patients,” she said.
The union originally sought to create a 1:4 staffing ratio during the process — meaning that one nurse would not be responsible for more than four patients at once, Leo said. The nursing council is a compromise step but requires the implementation of safe staffing levels. Noncompliance would trigger a legal process, she said.
“As nurses, our first job is to advocate for our patients,” she said. “In this case, we are advocating for our patients, not only at the bedside but at the bargaining table. … We nurses are so excited for this. We feel like we can really make some good, positive changes with what we’ve got.”
Hospital CEO Kniffin said in a statement Friday that the agreement is “fair to everyone.”
“I now invite each of you to join in the ongoing and important work of making Porter the best place we could ever want to work, and the best place we could ever want to be a patient,” Kniffin wrote.
Karen Beinhaur, the chief nursing officer for Porter Medical Center, said the council will “promote a collaborative approach to ensuring that we are providing appropriate staffing levels and maintaining the highest quality patient and resident care.”
Beinhaur said the increased tuition reimbursement is “a way of supporting professional education and providing us with another way of attracting and retaining outstanding nurses throughout our organization.”