BRATTLEBORO—Members of United Nurses and Allied Professionals (UNAP) Local 5086 voted overwhelmingly to approve a hard-reached labor contract between the union and Brattleboro Retreat on Dec. 17.
Of Local 5086’s 300 voting members, 109 affirmed the contract, while 10 voted no.
The bargaining team negotiated a 2.4-percent pay increase for union members. Employees will also keep the shift differential, or higher rates for those working hours other than standard day shifts.
One compromise that the union made was agreeing to a 10-month rather than three-year contract. The eight-member bargaining team chose the shorter contract because the Retreat could not guarantee the terms stipulated by the contract for all three years.
Jack Callaci, director of collective bargaining and organizing for UNAP, said the slick winter weather kept many voters away, even after the union postponed the vote by a week so members could receive more information on proposed health insurance decisions.
The union’s previous contract expired earlier this autumn.
Negotiations between the Retreat and the union bargaining team grew tense, with union members holding multiple informational pickets outside the hospital. Despite the tension, the union membership never called for a strike.
Amid the rancor, the Retreat announced it would cut two programs and lay off 31 employees.
In previous interviews, Callaci had described the Retreat’s proposed cuts and changes for the union members as “radical.”
‘Glad it’s over’
While members broke open the ballot box, Union Unit 2 president and hospital employee Tom Flood commented on the contract negotiation process and moving forward.
“We’re very worn out and very glad this is over,” said Flood of the multi-month process.
Flood said he thought the contract had come through negotiations in strong form.
According to Flood, raises negotiated for the union often roll over to benefit non-union members.
The Retreat had wanted to cut the differential between day, evening, and night shifts by an estimated two-thirds, said Flood. This proposal would have cost an employee on the second shift as much as $2,500 a year and someone on third shift as much as $4,500 a year.
In addition to the pay increases and preservation of the shift differential, negotiations also yielded a promise from the Retreat to contribute 3 percent to qualifying employees’ pension funds.
Health insurance benefits, which management had targeted for drastic changes, were preserved, said Flood. The bargaining team also managed to negotiate for enhanced prescription coverage.
“The economic package is good,” said Flood. “I wouldn’t say it was great, and I wouldn’t say it was bad.”
The contract also preserved current staffing levels on the units governed by the hospital’s staffing grid.
Maintaining the staffing levels needed to keep staff and patients safe was the union’s main push, said Flood.
The contract dictates that staffing levels will remain, with the exception of the recent layoffs.
Looking ahead, the work of ensuring quality patient care is not complete, said Flood. The union members will continue to strive toward providing for patients.
“Little by little, we’ll continue to move forward,” he said.
Flood also said that union members will be following the threat of new staffing cuts in residential programs that serve adolescent and pre-adolescent patients.
In the previous few weeks, said Flood, the Retreat had talked about reducing staffing in these programs by 1.4 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions. This could translate into the elimination of two to four positions depending on how the Retreat defines the FTEs.
A unique opportunity
A new development for the Retreat and the union is a pilot committee aimed at finding areas to save money.
“We’ve never had an opportunity to have shared governance,” said Flood.
According to Unit One Union President Bonnie Chase, this committee marks a unique teamwork opportunity for administration and staff.
The Safe Staffing Steering Committee has from January until June 1, 2013 to work with representatives from the Retreat’s administration on identifying cost savings and efficiencies.
She anticipates the committee will start work in early January and meet every other week.
According to Chase, historically the Retreat has not encouraged governance or feedback from the bottom up. She hopes this committee will start a new trend.
Union members want the Retreat to thrive and also want their voices to become a part of that sustaining existence, she said.
Chase said that every unit at the Retreat has unique needs. The committee’s aim is to form active groups from each unit to address their respective needs but also identify cost savings and ensure effective and adequate staffing.
Chase said she felt grateful that the negotiations were complete but said safety issues remain a top priority.
According to Chase, union members had met with legislators to discuss how to keep staff and patients safer.
Although tired, Chase said the negotiations and layoffs helped invigorate the membership. Members have a greater sense of solidarity, she said.
“It unified the union,” she said. “People are more invested.”
Losing key staff
Ed Dowd, a nurse on Tyler 3, said that the units are feeling the loss of the laid-off workers.
When the Retreat handed 31 employees pink slips, it also cut two programs — Therapeutic Activities Services (TAS) and in-patient chemical dependency counselors — and reduced teaching staff.
Losing these programs and teachers in one swoop has reverberated into shallowing the depth of treatments for patients, Dowd charged.
“The loss has been incalculable,” he said.
According to Dowd, the Retreat has offered some form of therapeutic activities since its inception in the 1800s.
Dowd said that TAS workers had served as program coordinators on the units designing programs and activities for patients.
Management told employees that the duties of the canceled programs would be absorbed by other departments, said Dowd.
But Dowd said there is a limit to the capacity in those areas. “Where there’s absorption, there’s saturation,” he said.
In the case of TAS, he said, art, music, and movement therapy provided patients with non-verbal ways to express the largely non-verbal experience of their respective diagnoses and lives.
In turn, the unit staff had another avenue to understand patients’ needs, he said.
The chemical dependency counselors provided a critical resource, said Dowd. The councilors understood the addiction recovery process in ways most other staff did not.
This understanding came from a place of authenticity that patients connected with, he said.
“It’s a very sad time,” Dowd said. “[We’ve lost] an adjunct to the work that we do.”