“We are the union! The nurses’ union! Fighting for our patients! And our community!”

Chants like these could be heard among car horn honks of supporting passersby as nurses, physicians and supporters marched up and down the sidewalk in front of the University of Vermont Medical Center Family Practice in Colchester last week.

The rally was a part of a larger strike of the nurses’ union against UVMMC that began last Thursday at 7 a.m. at the Burlington and surrounding campuses, including Essex Adult Primary Care.

The strike was a result of the union and UVMMC’s failure to come to an agreement on contract negotiations, which have been ongoing for five months.

Nurses said they make less than their counterparts in Plattsburgh, N.Y., and their salaries are well behind national averages despite top executives making millions. The union proposed a 24 percent salary increase over three years to reach equity with the national level.

UVMMC countered with a 13 percent salary increase over three years, which it increased to 14 percent in the final negotiation session last Wednesday night.

In a statement released last Thursday morning, UVMMC chief operating officer Eileen Whalen said she was “disappointed” the parties couldn’t come to an agreement on Wednesday night and believed the hospital negotiated “in good faith” with the union.

While the hospital may have improved its offer, the union maintained it wasn’t enough.

Janice Solek-Teft of Underhill isn’t a nurse at UVMMC, but showed up to the Essex facility to support her friends. She said her colleagues’ shifts are made much more difficult due to the limited number of staff.

“I’m out here to support the care that these nurses provide for us, because they really are on the firing line,” Solek-Teft said. “If it wasn’t for the nurses, the whole hospital would fall apart.”

She also worried about them leaving the community if conditions don’t improve.

“I have [a] friend that was hired about a year ago with a group of 10; there’s only four left,” she said. “They’re leaving because the pay is so low here, they can’t keep quality nurses.”

Nurses in Colchester also cited staff turnover and low wages that they said threaten the quality of care they can provide patients.

“We don’t have the staff to answer the phones. We don’t have the nursing staff to take care of the patients,” Kim DeForge-Cronin, RN, said. “If you call our clinic, you can be assured that you’re going to be on hold for 15 or 20 minutes just to get through to someone.”

Jordanne Vetters, a nurse practitioner, joined Colchester Family Practice about a year ago at a lower starting salary than her previous job at Burlington Health and Rehab, despite having two years of experience.

“I have a hefty student loan bill, and it’s not easy to make that payment every month when you’re barely compensated,” she said.

She added that competitive wages at rehab and long-term care centers are more desirable to newer nurses and will most likely affect UVMMC’s staffing levels if wages don’t increase.

But it’s not just about the money, nurses said.

“It’s about safe staffing and putting the money where it belongs,” DeForge-Cronin said.

Nurses at the rally voiced their concerns over UVMMC executives’ high salaries despite staffing concerns at the practices. According to UVMMC’s Form 990 for the fiscal year 2016 – the latest available with the IRS – CEO John Brumstead made just shy of $2.2 million. Whalen made over $860,000.

“They don’t spread the wealth,” said Joanne Hunt, RN, at Colchester Family Practice. “A lot of it’s about respect at this point.”

Nurses wonder why some of that money can’t be put toward better equipment, supplies and support staff to ease the already strained nurses’ workloads.

“They could do so much with that money to take care of patients and improve the quality of care,” DeForge-Cronin said. “There are nurses mopping up floors instead of taking care of patients. It’s definitely frustrating.”

“For me, ultimately it’s about taking better care of our patients across the board,” added Hunt.

Dr. Alan Ramsay and Dr. Marga Sproul, the founding practitioners of Colchester Family Practice, were at the strike Thursday supporting the nurses. Their major concern was growing healthcare costs caused by the lack of support for primary care physicians.

“Vermonters are not going to be able to afford health care unless we invest more in nurses, physicians and nurse practitioners that provide primary care,” Ramsey said. “Unless you value this side of the healthcare system, we’re all going to be in trouble.”

While the two-day strike ended last Friday and nurses returned to work over the weekend, talks between the hospital and the union will resume next week.

Additional reporting for this story was done by Colin Flanders.