Preparations for a national union organizing campaign within the veterinary profession have started to take shape this year. The fledgling National Veterinary Professionals Union began quietly coordinating efforts among primarily small animal clinics this past summer in the hopes of eventually holding union elections.
Union steering committee members say they want to stem the tide of veterinary technicians and others "leaving the profession in droves" because of low pay and lack of professional recognition. But some leaders in the profession contend unionizing doesn't necessarily guarantee better pay and benefits for employees or improved patient care and may drive up prices for clients.
Organizers say they're not limiting their efforts to credentialed veterinary technicians but also hope to include associate veterinarians as well as assistants and other unlicensed assistive personnel. They're looking to join forces with a larger union, potentially the Service Employees International Union, which has around 2 million members and represents a broad spectrum of workers, including nurses, nurse's aides, and home health care workers.
Unions haven't previously taken hold in veterinary medicine largely because of the small number of employees per clinic. Brakke Consulting estimates that 27,000 to 30,000 veterinary practices operate in the U.S. A majority are individually owned, and those are largely one- or two-doctor practices. Still, a limited number of unions exist among veterinary personnel at some veterinary teaching hospitals, county or municipal shelters, and research laboratories, generally because employees there can join unions with other government workers.
That said, the veterinary landscape has changed in the past decade as the corporate consolidation trend has ramped up. Mars Inc., owner of Banfield Pet Hospital and its more than 975 hospitals, on Sept. 12 announced its successful acquisition of VCA Inc. and its 800 veterinary hospitals in the U.S. and Canada in a deal valued at $9.1 billion. The acquisition was announced in January, and Mars received Federal Trade Commission approval to move forward in late August. The FTC required Mars to divest seven BluePearl emergency and referral centers and five VCA hospitals from its portfolio of just under 2,000 practices in the U.S. and Canada. That is about two-thirds of all corporately owned practices.
Liz Hughston, a relief technician in the San Francisco Bay Area and communications director for the NVPU, said, "I think that acquisition was a catalyst that made people recognize that we don't have enough input or power in our industry. As we see more consolidation, we'll see more employees who are feeling very squeezed with what they are expected to do in practice every day."
Morgan VanFleet, a veterinary technician in Seattle, formerly worked at a BluePearl clinic but now goes to nursing school. After hearing of the proposed merger, she felt inspired to have veterinary employees "band together so we can have a more powerful voice at the table." In March, VanFleet created a private Facebook page for what started as the Pacific Veterinary Professionals Union to centralize union efforts among employees of corporately owned practices in the Pacific Northwest. Despite having no budget and relying solely on word of mouth, the effort quickly gained traction, with more than 2,000 people joining the group by July. Also during that time, a 20-member steering committee formed, and the group changed its name to reflect its national ambitions.
"We've been really pleased that this has resonated with so many people. Across the industry, people know we're struggling. Even managers are having a hard time because it doesn't benefit anyone to lose staff left and right," said VanFleet, who is operations director of the NVPU. She noted that at one of the practices where she did relief work, the entire reception team turned over during the year she was there.
We care deeply about all associates and recognize we couldn't deliver on our promise of compassionate, advanced care for pets without their valuable skills and knowledge. As always, we are working to better understand the concerns of all of our associates and remain committed to the industry, our associates, and to quality care for our patients.
Dr. Jennifer Welser, chief medical officer, BluePearl Veterinary Partners
There has been a known shortage of credentialed veterinary technicians since 2016, and the difficulty in finding qualified personnel to fill positions is a major complaint from veterinary practices, according to the 2016 National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America demographic survey. "Measures to continue driving interest in the field are needed. Attracting and retaining qualified individuals is critical to the growth of the profession," according to authors of the survey, which is conducted every four or five years to give a glimpse of the state of technicians in practice.
Results also indicated that most veterinary technicians work 30-40 hours per week (43 percent), followed by 40-50 hours per week (37.6 percent). Full-time technicians report a salary of $15-$20 per hour (44 percent), or $31,200 to $41,600 for an annual salary at 40 hours a week, whereas part-time technicians indicate $14-$16 per hour (29 percent), or $14,560 to $16,640 for an annual salary at 20 hours a week. In comparison, the poverty line in the U.S. for a family of four is $24,300. That means well-paid veterinary technicians are only slightly above the poverty line once income taxes are considered, the study's authors wrote.
Hughston said the loss of staff is a huge issue for the profession that also affects veterinarians and their ability to do their jobs. She believes a union can help decrease turnover by negotiating and enforcing payment of a living wage for veterinary staff.
Other goals of the union are as follows:
Establish realistic staff-to-patient ratios to ensure both staff and patient safety.
Create workplaces free from bullying and harassment by fellow staff, management, and clients.
Negotiate for benefits to ensure staff health and well-being.
Advocate for patients and the provision of gold-standard care.
Educate the public, legislators, and others about the roles of various staff members in veterinary practice.
Dr. Jennifer Welser, chief medical officer for BluePearl Veterinary Partners, said in a statement, "We care deeply about all associates and recognize we couldn't deliver on our promise of compassionate, advanced care for pets without their valuable skills and knowledge. As always, we are working to better understand the concerns of all of our associates and remain committed to the industry, our associates, and to quality care for our patients."
Not everyone agrees unionization will keep employees from leaving the profession. Julie Legred, executive director of NAVTA, said while both her organization and union organizers have the same interest at hand, which is veterinary employees, "We want them to have all the facts."
She continued, "We're hoping veterinary employees are not rushing into it thinking they will make tons more money. It's kind of a give-and-take thing (with collective bargaining). Unionizing is not necessarily cheap for them and doesn't guarantee anything," in reference to the dues members would have to pay. Organizers say the unions they're looking at as models have dues set at 2 to 3 percent of employees' wages.
Legred said she also worries that if unionized veterinary employees ever went on strike, it could have a negative impact on patients' health and care.
Another concern is that unions could negatively affect the industry by raising client prices to offset the potentially higher wages. Mark Cushing is a lobbyist with the Animal Policy Group, which works on behalf of various animal health, veterinary, and educational interests, including Banfield Pet Hospital. He predicts that if unionization efforts succeed in the veterinary market in a meaningful way, practices will have to adjust.
"They will have two choices: raising prices, which pet owners will respond to negatively, and my fear is, they'll vote with their feet and forego care. Or the alternative will be to lay off staff."
He continued, "(Unions) will not just impact veterinary practice ownership or team dynamics, all of which are important, but we really have to pay attention to the fact that this undermines the broader goal to attract more pet owners to access care. The price just goes up."
Instead, Legred encourages veterinary practices to listen to employees and respond to their needs. She points to NAVTA's Veterinary Nurse Initiative as an alternative that addresses many of the issues that union organizers cite but on a scale that would affect all veterinary technicians, not just those who unionize, although not other practice staff.
The association's Veterinary Nurse Initiative Coalition is pursuing legislative changes nationally to establish the credential of registered veterinary nurse, starting with Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio this year. It would replace the titles of registered veterinary technician, licensed veterinary technician, certified veterinary technician, or licensed veterinary medical technician. The aim is to unite the profession under a single title, set of credentialing requirements, and scope of practice. The standardization and public awareness of the registered veterinary nurse credential, the coalition says, will result in better recognition and mobility for veterinary technicians, and, in turn, better patient care and consumer protection.
"Two factors animate a union: compensation, first and foremost, which is probably the case here, and respect, whether bargaining or political or organizational," said Cushing, who is a consultant to NAVTA for this initiative. "The Veterinary Nurse Initiative addresses both and in a way that is meaningful and will lead to more and significantly better health care. The initiative will cause pet owners to have more awareness and respect for what key professionals do and will drive compensation through greater practice revenues. Unionization does just the opposite. I think that someone who is looking at both options and chooses the veterinary nurse door, there will be much less interest to form a union."
He cautions practices to take this effort seriously despite the lack of information available (The union's Facebook page is private, so only members may see it, and the NVPU website is sparsely populated).
What happens next?
Currently, NVPU officials are establishing contact with employees at various practices to determine whether enough of them are interested in the union to make a campaign worthwhile, who would lead an organizing campaign, and which workplace policies and practices might affect such an effort.
Hughston said, "Because we are still in the planning phase, we don't want to telegraph too much of what's going on. There's already been efforts from larger corporate practices to curtail our organizing efforts, so we need to be careful about the information we share in this arena."
According to the National Labor Relations Board, if a majority of employees at a workplace want to form a union, they can select a union in one of two ways. First, if at least 30 percent of employees sign authorization cards or a petition saying they want a union, the NLRB will conduct an election. However, most organizers wait to announce that the union represents a majority of the employees until at least 50 percent sign but usually until 60 percent to 80 percent sign. If a majority of those who vote choose the union, the NLRB will certify the union as the representative for collective bargaining.
An election is one way a union can become the exclusive bargaining unit at a workplace. The second way, according to the NLRB, is that the employer may voluntarily recognize a union on the basis of evidence—typically, signed union-authorization cards—that a majority of employees want it to represent them. Once a union has been certified or recognized, the employer is required to bargain over terms and conditions of employment with the union representative.
We want our employers and the profession to be successful. We want to support practices financially and for them to be medically successful. To do that, we need to retain talent and keep people in the field. To accomplish that, we feel it's necessary that industry takes better care of its most vital asset, which is human resources.
Morgan VanFleet, operations director, National Veterinary Professionals Union
"Mostly, I believe that this is going to impact larger practices because most smaller practices do a good job of taking care of employees, and they have a voice in smaller practices. It's easier to participate in those discussions," Hughston said.
The AVMA has not adopted a position regarding the potential impact of unionizing employees at privately owned veterinary clinics; however, it reminds owners that the desire for a union may be diminished if veterinary employers effectively communicate with employees and address their needs.
The AVMA does advise that any owner of a veterinary clinic that is the target of a union organizing campaign should promptly seek expert legal advice, given the complicated nature of the laws that apply to such campaigns and how an employer may respond. For example, the National Labor Relations Act says employers cannot interfere with the unionization process once it's begun. A full list of employer and union obligations is available.
Already, union organizers have undertaken a wage transparency project among clinics. They approached a handful of practices earlier this year and asked employees to tell them how much they earn, how many years they've worked, and their position. Then they published that information for everyone in the practice to see.
Dr. David Gill, an NVPU steering committee member and an emergency and critical care veterinarian, said, "That opened a lot of people's eyes. People working for years were not getting paid as much as someone who doesn't have the same credentials as them. Some got angry, and rightfully so. In fact, management had to come in and do some pacifying."
At press time, NAVTA leaders and union organizers planned to meet at the end of September to discuss their perspectives and goals.
Hughston maintains that the unionization efforts dovetail with the Veterinary Nurse Initiative.
"We both want to educate as many people in and out of the industry about what it is that we do, the care we provide, and how we're taking care of our people in our industry," she said.
VanFleet added, "We want our employers and the profession to be successful. We want to support practices financially and for them to be medically successful. To do that, we need to retain talent and keep people in the field. To accomplish that, we feel it's necessary that industry takes better care of its most vital asset, which is human resources."
The AVMA has created an FAQ document to help associate veterinarians and other veterinary staff understand their rights and make informed decisions if a union seeks to organize them.