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Retreat union approves new contract

New three-year deal includes a provision calling for the end of mandatory overtime by February 2017

BRATTLEBORO—Nearly 600 employees at the Brattleboro Retreat have a new, three-year contract.

The organization’s deal with Local 5086 of the United Nurses and Allied Professionals Union covers employees in several departments and includes the facility’s numerous mental health workers.

It provides for raises and an increase in the Brattleboro Retreat’s contributions to employee retirement plans, while also paving the way for a possible end to mandatory overtime.

Contract talks began last fall and wrapped up in January, hospital administrators and union representatives said Feb. 19 in a joint statement.

“The successful negotiations are noteworthy in that, for the second consecutive contract, the parties agreed to negotiate without outside representatives,” the joint statement said. “Both parties have worked hard to maintain and continue a good working relationship, and the new agreement reflects this.”

The facility and the union first adopted that negotiating approach in 2013. At the time, the two sides were attempting to improve a rocky relationship that had been marked by informational pickets the year before.

The more-collegial tone of the 2013 talks yielded a two-year contract that expired Oct. 31 of last year. The Brattleboro Retreat and union agreed to a three-month extension in order to provide time to come up with a new deal, hospital spokesman Jeff Kelliher said.

That contract, which will expire Oct. 31, 2018, covers employees from the “inpatient, residential, ambulatory, school programs and other ancillary departments,” Kelliher said. The facility currently employs about 830 people, so a majority of the mental health and substance abuse treatment facility’s staff is covered by the deal.

Union members approved the agreement Jan. 29 on a 102-96 vote. In the joint statement, the Brattleboro Retreat and union said the deal includes “new structures that recognize and reward advanced expertise and responsibilities” while also supporting “the hospital’s need to ensure ongoing organizational stability and strategic flexibility in a changing health care environment.”

The two sides highlighted several elements of the contract:

• There are guaranteed pay hikes this year and in 2017 and 2018, “plus the potential for additional increases based on the organization’s financial performance,” officials said. Additionally, there are market-based pay increases for certain positions.

• The Brattleboro Retreat will increase its matching contributions to the employee 403(b) retirement plan. There also will be automatic employee enrollment in that plan; under the old contract, staffers had to choose to opt in.

• There’s an agreement to maintain the same health and dental insurance programs over the life of the contract. The contract also sets a 6 percent cap on any increase in employee contributions.

Two other contract provisions deal with manpower. There will be, by mutual agreement, minimum staffing levels in each of the Brattleboro Retreat’s seven inpatient units. The joint statement also mentions “a commitment to work collaboratively” to end mandatory overtime by Feb. 1, 2017.

While overtime is sometimes necessary in order to ensure adequate staffing in healthcare facilities, Kelliher said mandatory overtime is “an issue that is both disruptive to affected employees and expensive for the hospital.”

“That’s why union leaders and management both agree that coming up with a solution to effectively end mandatory overtime is a win-win for just about everyone involved,” he said.

There is precedent for such collaborative initiatives: A work group that focuses on safety issues for employees and staff was formed in the 2013 contract, and Kelliher said the group still meets “and has worked successfully to improve a number of safety-related issues.”

“Members include representatives from both management and union who have expanded the scope of their work to include issues such as staff training; recruitment and retention; and scheduling,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #346 (Wednesday, March 2, 2016). This story appeared on page A3.

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