Why the veterinary profession needs a union
Morgan VanFleet, a licensed veterinary technician in Washington state, decided in February 2017 that she had had enough. After working more than a decade in veterinary medicine, VanFleet was unable to keep up with mounting medical bills and unable to afford modest housing in the city where she worked. Hearing similar complaints from colleagues, she channeled her frustration and energy toward a movement that might help others in a similar position. She started the Washington Veterinary Professionals Union.
In short order, word spread about our fledgling organization. Technicians, veterinary assistants, customer service reps and associate veterinarians from Washington, Oregon and California reached out to us, and veterinary professionals from around the country made contact. We later became the National Veterinary Professionals Union.
From the beginning, our goals have been clear. First and foremost, the career of a credentialed veterinary technician must be viable and sustainable. The most recent statistics compiled by the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America indicate that the average career lifespan of a credentialed veterinary technician is seven years or less. This translates to huge expenses for veterinary practices in the form of turnover and retraining costs. It is also a prime contributor to the current nationwide shortage of credentialed veterinary technicians in clinical practice. Growing numbers of highly skilled technical staff leaving the profession lead to lower levels of patient care and increased patient-to-staff ratios.
While there is much debate about what constitutes a living wage, it is clear that most staff members are unable to survive on their veterinary pay. Technicians and assistants often work two or three jobs to make ends meet. A primary reason that skilled staff leave the profession is to pursue better compensation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in January 2017 that members of labor unions made, on average, 19 to 25 percent more than their non-unionized counterparts.
The National Veterinary Professionals Union hopes to assist our members in engaging in collective bargaining to increase wages and benefits on behalf of all practice employees. While some in management oppose our movement and claim that increases in wages and benefits aren’t possible, we believe there are creative ways to achieve our goals without necessarily having to impose higher prices on pet owners.
It is our expectation that organizing will impact corporately owned veterinary practices to a larger extent than privately owned facilities. The majority of veterinary health professionals are employed by smaller private practices whose owners may feel that positive progressive change is not possible within their hospital’s financial limitations. However, if veterinary facilities — both corporate and private — do not accept a burden of ethical responsibility for their employees, then their patients will suffer the consequences due to inadequate patient-to-staff ratios, ineffective staff recruitment and retention, and workplace health and safety issues.
Through organizing workplaces, we hope to bring the industry into alignment and level the playing field by making sure everyone is playing the same game, subject to the same rules of engagement.
An important point to remember is that unionization can take place only if a majority of employees in a practice vote to unionize. If an employer is fair, open and transparent with the workforce, the likelihood of unionization is quite remote.
Another goal of the National Veterinary Professionals Union is to increase public education and visibility as to the various roles within the veterinary practice. There is a deep lack of understanding of what different staff members do behind the scenes, and we believe that an educated consumer base will be willing to pay more for a perceived higher quality of personnel. When clients understand the education required to become a veterinarian or a credentialed veterinary technician, and the time and expense involved in gaining that education and credentialing, we believe they may be willing to accept higher costs of services provided by a highly trained and skilled staff.
As an organization, we are committed to working collaboratively with management to keep consumer costs reasonable while also increasing wages and benefits for staff.
Liz Hughston is communications director at the National Veterinary Professionals Union and a relief veterinary technician, trainer and consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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