State sees progress at Vets Home
By Neal P. Goswami
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | November 14,2013
Patrick McArdle / Staff Photo
The Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington is addressing its issues, but some labor disputes remain.
MONTPELIER — The Vermont State Employees Association, the Shumlin administration and officials at the Vermont Veterans Home reported progress Wednesday on efforts to resolve staffing and management issues at the facility.
A nearly three-hour meeting at the home Wednesday was productive, according to participants. But thorny labor issues are not fully resolved, including whether the home’s Board of Trustees will hire part-time workers, if they will receive benefits and if the union will be allowed to elect its own member to the board.
Those questions have been raised following more than a year of turmoil at the state’s only residential care facility for veterans. It has faced a number of crises recently, including a projected $3.5 million deficit in the current fiscal year and several threats from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to cut federal funding because of deficiencies discovered at the home.
Meanwhile, relations between the Vermont State Employees Association and the trustees have been strained. The union had very publicly criticized staffing levels and work schedules and blamed administrators for ongoing struggles at the home.
Lawmakers, seeking to right the ship, commissioned an independent report to study the financial viability of the home and find ways to improve operations.
That report, completed by Mike Pulling, president of Health Care Management Associates and a former interim director of the home, was released in August.
Among the report’s recommendations was to have Deputy Administrator Al Faxon, a retired Army colonel, leapfrog Administrator Melissa Jackson in the home’s chain of command and become chief executive officer.
Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding and the trustees quickly rejected that idea Wednesday. Jackson, despite the home’s troubles in the past year and a half, has retained their full support.
Instead, in a letter last month to the administration, the trustees proposed a new business model for the home that creates a chief executive officer and a chief operating officer. Jackson, a licensed nursing home administrator, would remain the top official as CEO while Faxon would serve as COO.
Under the revamped business model, personnel would be divided into two groups — nursing and clinical services, and operations. The director of nursing services will be charged with overseeing nursing and clinical services while the COO will be in charge of operations.
The use of part-time staff could be the most contentious issue. According to the labor contract in place, staff working less than 20 hours per week do not have to be offered health insurance and other benefits.
Steve Howard, legislative director for the VSEA, said the nursing staff has been seeking part-time workers for several years. Any part-time workers on staff should still qualify for benefits, though, he said.
The parties agreed Wednesday to establish a labor management committee at the home to iron out differences surrounding the hiring of part-time workers and the number of exempt positions working there.
Despite progress, Howard said the union will still push to ensure that no more than 30 percent of the part-time workers hired to provide more flexibility in scheduling nurses are without benefits.
“Our view is that the vets home is not Wal-Mart. We don’t want it to become Wal-Mart,” he said. “We want assurances that management is not going to abuse part-time positions to balance the budget on the backs of the workers taking care of our veterans. I think that’s something that’s workable.”
Spaulding, who was joined at Wednesday’s meeting by Human Resources Commissioner Kate Duffy, said the administration and management at the home understand the union’s concerns and the union’s target seems “feasible.”
“Where we all agreed was that the use of part-time employees would be good for the staff, it would be good for quality of care and it would be good financially, too,” Spaulding said.
“What the union wants to be sure of, which we’re all appreciative of, is that we’re not just going to use it to lower costs at the expense of care,” he said.
The union is also opposed to adding more positions exempt from the union labor contract. Howard said the Board of Trustees originally proposed as many as 23 exempt positions, but only eight are still being considered.
Howard said the union has agreed to three — director of finance, director of nursing and director of environmental services.
“We are not in a place where we can agree to all eight,” he said. “The union is reluctant to ever agree to any changes that removes the rights of the contract for an employee.”
Spaulding said some senior management positions will be converted to exempt positions, and talks about the exact number will continue.
“We’re still talking about that but the number we’re working at is between four and eight,” he said.
The union had also sought to hire Pulling to a permanent position at the home to help guide management. Spaulding said that will not happen, but Pulling will continue to oversee operations through a new contract. Pulling will report progress at the home on a quarterly basis.
“I think both the board, management and the Shumlin administration didn’t think that was appropriate,” he said. “What we did agree would be helpful is that the secretary of administration will contract with him for a year to report quarterly … on the progress that has been made.”
Spaulding touted “positive momentum” at the home and said the relationship between the union and management continues to improve. The thaw in relations can be attributed to several factors, including the amount of time Joseph L. Krawczyk Jr., president of the trustees, has spent at the home.
Spaulding also credited Gov. Peter Shumlin’s commitment to “getting it right,” and “constructive representatives” of the VSEA.
“What it has resulted in, which is the key, is much more effective communications between the staff and the management to understand what the real issues are and to each others’ side of the story in a respectful fashion,” Spaulding said. “Employees better understand the home’s financial reality and management better understands the needs of staff.”