By an overwhelming majority, nurses at VA medical centers across the country have ratified a national contract, a master agreement unprecedented in its protections of patient care standards and for strengthening the voice of RNs in the care of the nation’s veterans. The recent vote at Buffalo VA Medical Center was the last of 22 VA medical centers wins for the RNs, who are represented by National Nurses United (NNU), the largest union and professional association of registered nurses in the U.S., with 185,000 members. With Buffalo, the RNs now have gained their first NNU national contract in the VA system, covering 9,000 nurses in 22 hospitals serving vets in 10 states and Washington, D.C.
“I am so proud of the work the team accomplished for our nurses,” said Irma Westmoreland, RN, of Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, GA, and chair, NNU VA directors “This is precedent setting both in terms of the rights of RNs in the VA system and for protecting patient care standards. RNs have a process to object to unsafe assignments. There are so many great provisions and new RN rights in this contract.”
Contract provisions on “safety” are extensive in the master agreement, covering areas such as violence in the work place, ergonomics, safe patient handling, and union involvement in safety inspections. RNs’ right to report unsafe conditions without reprisal is a key contract item, say the nurses.
Specific provisions achieved by the nurses include limiting schedules to 16-hour shifts for emergencies only, allowing time between shifts so that nurses can be fully rested and prepared to best carry out patient responsibilities. They point to rules limiting mandatory overtime now likewise in place in the contract which, they say, are also critical to adequate rest and preparation.
“The new contract has so many improvements for all the NNU RNs in the VA system. Many of the best work life practices from the local contracts were incorporated,” said Bonita Reid, RN director and staff nurse from Buffalo. “There is support for RNs’ continuing education and professional development. There will be no tolerance for workplace violence or bullying from any source.”
Under the agreement, unions have the right to inspect the nurse working environment to guarantee safety and, if unsafe conditions are uncovered, have the right to be involved in abatement planning.
VA staffing methodology – like all RN staffing issues, essential to the provision of quality care to patients – is to be set by committees on which the nurses will sit. Standards will be set at the unit level, with nurse in put.
The national contract guarantees seniority for all the units, counting time-in-VA-service-as-RN only. The provision helps to attract and retain experienced RNs on staff.
Adequate support staff, and better rules covering floats and temporary assignments were also cited by the RNs as some of the contracts many advances. “I feel the new contract has improved the working conditions,” said Odell Anderson Director and Staff nurse from Lake City, FL. “This is just the beginning and a new day for the nursing professional. “
“This new contract expresses the respect RNs deserve as vital members of the VA health system,” said Adelena Marshall, RN and NNU director at Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago. “It gives us a greater voice in caring for our veterans in an arena where RNs will be heard.”
Five of the 22 hospitals covered by the NNU master agreement are in New York State—three in metro NYC, one each in Albany and Buffalo; there are three in Chicago and three in Florida- Miami, Tampa and Lake City; two are in Georgia- Atlanta and Augusta; two in Ohio- Cincinnati and Dayton; and one in each of the following locations: Des Moines, IA; Lexington, KY; Tuscaloosa, AL; Denver, CO; Durham, NC; Martinsberg, WVA and Washington, D.C. In addition, the national contract covers community-based outpatient clinics—two in upstate New York and one in Des Moines.