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Months into contract negotiations, UVM and its staff union remain far apart

A group of University of Vermont staff union members hold protest signs as they walk through campus.
James Richmond Paradissis
University of Vermont staff union members rally on March 17, 2022. The newly-formed union is negotiating with the university administration, but union leaders say the sides remain far apart.

It’s been over nine months since a majority of staff members at the University of Vermont voted to unionize. But so far, the union and UVM administration have not been able to reach a deal. And according to leaders of the union’s bargaining unit, a negotiating session this week did not bring the sides any closer.

For more background on the UVM staff union push, VPR's Grace Benninghoff spoke with VPR business and economy reporter Henry Epp. Their conversation is below and has been edited for clarity.

Grace Benninghoff: So, who is in this union and how did it come about?

Henry Epp: This union covers about 1,300 employees at UVM, which, by the way, is the second-largest employer in Vermont. It covers a wide variety of staff members. Essentially, it’s people who aren’t faculty and aren’t in management positions. So, staff who support students, work in the library, work in department offices, among many other roles. Two different groups of staff voted to unionize last summer, but now they’re essentially working as one entity.

And what are staff members seeking in this effort?

To put it really simply: more money. Union leaders say much of the staff is underpaid and many can barely afford to live in the Burlington area. The union says some staff have had to receive food assistance in recent years, and many take on second or third jobs — on top of their salaried positions at UVM — just to make rent. That’s the case for Jay Hardesty, the program manager at the school’s farm in South Burlington. Hardesty said in the five years they’ve been at UVM, they’ve always worked additional jobs to make ends meet.

“In the height of the pandemic, so 2020, I was working three jobs and seven days a week to afford living in this town, so that I can work for UVM," Hardesty said.

Many UVM staff had their pay cut in mid-2020. Those cuts were rolled back and staff were brought back up to their previous wages. But, staff say they haven’t gotten a pay boost since. And, as we know, everything is getting more expensive. Inflation rose nearly 8% over the past year.

Now, while most staff haven’t gotten a raise, UVM President Suresh Garimella has. His base pay increased by 10% in the last fiscal year, according to university documents. However, Garimella did take a pay cut of about 8% in 2020, so the raise essentially brings his salary back to where it was pre-pandemic.

Also, UVM has frozen tuition for the last several years, something the administration has touted to students and families. Tuition and fees make up 74% of revenues for the school’s general fund this year. So, any broad pay boost may also require an increase in tuition or fees.

OK, so wages are the big sticking point here. Are there other things staff are asking for?

Well, the staff members I spoke with say benefits they receive, like health insurance, are pretty good. But, they say they don’t have good options for parental leave, leaving them to use accrued time off or take unpaid leave if they have a child.

Union leaders also say they want the university to improve its practices around diversity, equity and inclusion. The union didn’t have specific numbers, but leaders noted that many staff of color have left the school in recent years. Staff also want more flexibility to work from home when needed, and to have a more transparent process around moving up within the university.

And how is the UVM administration responding to this union push?

I reached out to UVM spokesperson Enrique Corredera. He declined to go into details, but said the university is negotiating in good faith, and said the university and the union agreed those negotiations would be private.

Well, given that, what do we know about the state of negotiations right now?

According to some of the union members who are in those negotiations, the union put forward their wage proposal to the university, and this week the administration came back with their counter-proposal. And union negotiators called the university’s offer “disappointing.”

“I would just say what they offered, given that wages have been stagnant here, it wouldn’t even catch us up to... where we would need to be, given inflation and the stagnation of wages over the last few years,” said Rachel Wallace-Brodeur, who works at the Larner College of Medicine and is one of the lead negotiators in the bargaining unit.

What happens next in this process?

Wallace-Brodeur told me there’s another bargaining session scheduled for April 1. They’ve held 15 sessions already. The union is hoping to reach a deal by the end of this semester, which is coming up relatively soon. Union leaders say they don’t want staff to go another fiscal year without a raise, and UVM’s new fiscal year starts July 1. So we’ll be watching to see what happens.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.


Updated: March 23, 2022 at 12:31 PM EDT
This post has been updated to add additional context around UVM President Suresh Garimella's salary increase.
Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
Grace worked for the station in 2022.
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