Support staff unionizes at independent veterinary practice

Elsewhere, unions at corporate hospitals struggle to achieve contracts

Published: August 18, 2022
Photo courtesy of the Communications Workers of America
Licensed veterinary technicians Mary Nowicki and Maria VanCuren (back row from left) pose in pro-union T-shirts with colleagues and fellow union supporters at Orchard Park Veterinary Medical Center near Buffalo, New York. Emblazoned on the backs of their shirts is the message: "Standing up for patient care."

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Support staff at Orchard Park Veterinary Medical Center, near Buffalo, New York, voted to form a union on July 19, marking a first for the nascent veterinary labor movement.

Five of the six other unions to form since 2018 were at hospitals belonging to large national consolidators; the sixth was part of a regional chain. Orchard Park is the first union in the group at a stand-alone practice owned exclusively by veterinarians.

The 24-hour emergency and specialty hospital started as a one-doctor practice in 1958. The current owners — four veterinarians who continue to work on the floor — purchased the hospital from three owner-operators in 2017, according to the medical center's website and information from employees.

The practice website lists 25 staff veterinarians today. Employees represented by the new union number 140.

The support staff are affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, Local 1168, which also represents other types of medical workers in the Buffalo region. This is the CWA's first time organizing veterinary workers.

Maria VanCuren, a licensed veterinary technician who spearheaded the union effort, said working conditions declined after the practice changed hands in 2017, particularly since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Echoing complaints voiced by union organizers at corporate practices, VanCuren said low wages, inadequate staffing and a feeling among employees that management did not respect or have compassion for them motivated her to organize.

Still, VanCuren was hesitant to try to institute a union at the hospital where, after 13 years, she had friends and fond memories.

Last fall, she said, she took her concerns to an administrator, saying, "You can't keep overloading us with all these patients and expect the care to be where you want it to be."

Her message appeared to hit home.

"In the beginning, everything was great," VanCuren said. She recounted that some employees received moderate raises, and an existing flag system, which set limits on the number of patients that could be seen depending on staffing, was modified and, more importantly, enforced. A new flag, colored blue, was adopted to indicate that the intensive care unit was at capacity, and no new emergencies could be admitted.

In brief

"Then, things started backsliding," Van Curen said, noting that the flags stopped being used. She believes the hospital made a business decision to not turn away new patients without regard for the impact on the technicians and assistants who scrambled to care for those patients.

She said at times, there would be two veterinary technicians with one or two assistants covering 40 patients in the ICU. "You'd have technicians having breakdowns after shifts."

Through a spokesperson, Earl Wells III, Orchard Park said claims about being understaffed, particularly in the ICU, have no merit. In addition, the owners provided a general statement in lieu of answering questions:

"We respect our employees' right to organize and the National Labor Relations Board election process and will be working in good faith to negotiate a contract with our eligible employees.

"We will continue to focus on our mission and vision of always providing services based on our patient's needs and always being our patient's advocate.

"As a locally owned and operated veterinary medical center, we are proud of our long history and service to our patients and their families across Western New York."

Private practice stumbling block

VanCuren became convinced the only answer was a union. It took some persistence to find one to represent them.

She contacted Liz Hughston, president of the National Veterinary Professionals Union (NVPU), which began organizing technicians, assistants, customer service representatives and other hospital personnel in 2017. The NVPU either represents workers directly or provides subject matter expertise to other, more established, unions representing veterinary workers, often for the first time.

But Hughston told VanCuren the NVPU wasn't working with staff at private practices.

In an interview with VIN News, Hughston explained that her organization focuses its limited resources on organizing corporate practices because that's where it can make the greatest impact.

Veterinary labor votes since 2018

"When we negotiate against Thrive, who's backed by private equity, or Mars, who's backed by hundreds of billions of dollars in wealth, there's a very clear argument to be made about how much they could afford to do or not afford to do," she said, referring to Thrive Pet Healthcare, which owns around 350 primary, acute and specialty care practices across the country; and Mars Inc., a privately held conglomerate that is the world's largest owner of veterinary practices.

Hughston previously told VIN News that the NVPU is specifically not looking to organize owner-operator practices, where veterinarians are working alongside employees and ostensibly have a clear understanding of challenges at the practice and more direct communications with staff.

Frustrated, VanCuren almost gave up and began looking for a new job. Then she saw a Facebook post about the CWA by Jenn Hogue, a friend from high school who is a certified medical assistant at Buffalo General Hospital and an area vice president with CWA. VanCuren chimed in on the thread, saying she wished someone could help out her hospital. Hogue offered to try.

Hogue, VanCuren and a few colleagues from the hospital and CWA met at an Olive Garden to talk about it.

"Part of me was scared," VanCuren said. "I was like, 'Oh snap, am I going to lose my job over this?' Part of me was excited because … it could be good for people at work."

CWA had no reservations based on who owned the practice.

Ann Converso, a union organizer with CWA and a registered nurse for more than 30 years, said that at first, she thought representing veterinary workers seemed like a stretch. However, when she talked to technicians, she was astonished by the similarities between her experiences and theirs.

"They talk exactly like we talk," she said. "The animals are their patients. I just would have never known. We felt like it was an absolutely perfect fit."

Mary Nowicki, a licensed veterinary technician at Orchard Park for three years, was also active in the union push.

"Veterinary medicine needs a change," she said. "People are going clinic to clinic [to find a better work situation]. Why not improve the place you are working at?"

Despite her sense of mission and experience with labor — her father, father-in-law and sister have all been union members — she said the months-long organizing effort was hard and cost her some friendships.

"They really tried to union-bust us a lot," she said about management, including sending multiple emails a day for four to six weeks and calling weekly meetings during which they talked about all the ways unions could harm them.

"Management let employees write on our signs, post anti-union propaganda, and the hospital tore down our posters to let our coworkers know the facts/upcoming meetings," she said. "It was a lot of mind games they played with the staff. It was exhausting."

When asked about claims of "union-busting," Orchard Park owners offered the following statement: "Our position from the beginning when we learned about the unionization effort was an acknowledgment by the management that the employees had the right to support or not support a union. Relevant information was provided by both sides to the employees in order for them to make that decision."

This week, CWA began sending surveys to hospital personnel represented by the union to identify priorities and select who will serve on the bargaining committee to negotiate a contract.

"We've earned this right," VanCuren said. "I respect the partners. I don't hold any negative feelings at all. But at the end of the day, they need to do better by their staff."

Other advances and retreats

Of the six other unions certified since 2018, one has ratified a contract and two are in or about to enter negotiations. Two dissolved when hospitals closed after several years of unfulfilled contract talks, and one is dormant after a no-confidence petition drew a majority of workers' signatures. 

Of the two hospitals in the contract-negotiation process, one is All Creatures Animal Hospital in Bremerton, Washington, where support staff joined NVPU in June 2021. The general practice hospital is owned by Cara Veterinary, a private entity established in 2019 that owns eight practices in the Seattle-Tacoma region, according to its website. Cara purchased All Creatures in 2020 from an independent owner-operator. NVPU's Hughston praised management and its representatives, saying they have been "collaborative" bargaining partners. 

More than a year into contract talks, Alysia Simek, a licensed veterinary technician on the bargaining team, reported that some months, the team and management meet multiple times in sessions that run as long as five hours at a stretch. She's not discouraged.

"I am excited to see the changes we've got coming to fruition," she said. "I truly believe we've been able to negotiate for better wages, working conditions and benefits, and my hopes are that our contract will attract more employees, as well."

Hughston believes the negotiation will yield a contract before the end of the year.

The second unionized practice in the contract-negotiation process is Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Services (VSES) in Rochester, New York. Support staff there, represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, unionized in January. Those talks have been slow to get off the ground in part due to legal maneuvers by the owner, Thrive, which acquired VSES in May 2021.

Before the union vote, Thrive (then known as Pathway Vet Alliance) appealed to the National Labor Relations Board to stop the vote, arguing that VSES was not "an appropriate bargaining unit" for a variety of reasons

The regional office of the NLRB decided in favor of the employees, ruling that VSES can constitute its own bargaining unit. 

After the vote, which was 2-to-1 in favor of a union, Thrive asked the NLRB to review the earlier regional board decision and refused to enter into contract talks in the meantime, according to William Haller, associate general counsel with the machinists union. As a result, the union filed an unfair labor practice charge against Thrive for its refusal to bargain. Months after the vote, the NLRB dismissed Thrive's request that it review the bargaining unit decision. The union has since agreed to drop its unfair labor practice charges (it had filed a second one on another matter) in order to move forward with bargaining.

Thrive did not respond to VIN News questions but provided this statement through a spokesperson:

"On July 22, 2022, the International Association of Machinists and Thrive Pet Healthcare agreed to settle their legal disagreement and to proceed with collective bargaining negotiations. We expect bargaining negotiations to begin later this summer or early fall. We will continue striving for a supportive and rewarding workplace for every employee."

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