Union label within the profession?

Consolidation, rising costs, and flat wages have led some to start the National Veterinary Professionals Union

Mike Zareski, DVM, veterinarian-owner of Western Veterinary Group in Torrence, Calif., and some of his veterinary staff.
Photos by Clay Jackson

What’s in a word? If that word is union, as in labor union, plenty. For some, the word causes suspicion while others see work-life salvation.

Early this year, a small grassroots movement of veterinary staff personnel, including associate veterinarians, mostly Seattleites, formed the National Veterinarian Professionals Union (NVPU).

It’s a matter of perspective—veterinary staff in corporately owned veterinary hospitals or single-practice owners and their staffs—which camp one falls into.

“There are a lot of legacies in our economy from that time,” said David Gill, DVM, NVPU safety officer, referring to union excesses in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. “And we have to get past that.”

Dr. Gill is an emergency veterinarian at a Seattle-based BluePearl, a specialty and emergency veterinary hospital owned by Mars Petcare.

“Right now, unions, particularly in this situation, are grassroots; we’re just people trying to improve our situation, so it is an entirely different thing,” he said.

Stampede for the exits

The NVPU is the brainchild of Morgan VanFleet. (Ironically, VanFleet, a veterinary technician and NVPU operations director, is leaving the veterinary field for nursing.)

“We’re losing credentialed staff at a tremendously fast clip,” said Liz Hughston, RVT, CVT, VTS, a San Jose, Calif., veterinary technician and NVPU communications director, calling the veterinary profession “unsustainable” in its current form.

“The average longevity of a veterinary technician in the industry is seven years,” she added, citing a 2016 demographic survey by the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America. “We’re not graduating enough people to backfill that, and people aren’t staying for any number of reasons, but one of those is certainly compensation. They just cannot afford to stay in the job.”

“I worked with Morgan some in the past, although I’ve had several technical staff approach me over the past couple of years about organizing in some fashion,” Gill said. “It’s been something that’s been building up among staff over time.”

“Veterinarians are watching their veterinary technicians get forced out of the profession, and what that does is impact their ability to do their job[s] effectively,” Hughston said.

The National Veterinary Professionals Union (NVPU) has made a positive impact on the working lives of employees at one animal hospital in the Pacific Northwest.

The NVPU is not about wage uniformity but rather transparency, said David Gill, DVM, NVPU safety officer and emergency veterinarian at a Seattle-based BluePearl, a specialty and emergency veterinary hospital owned by Mars Petcare.

“It’s really hard to bargain for a wage increase as an individual if you don’t know where the floor and ceiling are and what everybody else is making,” he said.

About 50 percent of the people at the veterinary hospital were forthcoming about how much they were being paid.

“We found significant discrepancies,” Dr. Gill said.

The NVPU’s Wage Transparency Project uncovered long-tenured employees making less than newer people, and experienced people getting paid the same as new hires.

“Mars had to come in because there was so much uproar about this and make some adjustments for individuals,” he said. “Having that sort of transparency, where you know what you’re going to make, you know what you can achieve if you work hard and stay there long enough, and having that transparency is probably as important as having a raise. That’s what we’re looking for.”

A living wage

Some claim the biggest reason behind the push for unionization is providing workers with a living wage.

“I’m tired of … barely making above poverty level, considering I have two children. I live paycheck to paycheck,” said one licensed veterinarian technician at a 24-hour emergency clinic in Michigan, who wished to remain anonymous. “This is why people leave this field.”

In pricey urban enclaves like Seattle and San Jose, even veterinary staff at the top wage echelon can’t make ends meet, according to Gill.

Daily interaction with patients is one of the perks of working in a small animal clinic.

“There’s sort of this glass ceiling, and these people get wages up to about $22 an hour and minimal benefits,” he said.

By comparison, the Self-Sufficiency Standard for Washington State 2017 report found that an hourly wage of about $33 is necessary to support a single parent living in Seattle with two young children.

“They could easily make more with less stress elsewhere, and they make the logical choice,” Gill said.

Rising living costs in cities like Seattle and San Jose have far outpaced wages, which Gill indicated, “have been flat for salaried and hourly workers for decades.”

Hughston called the situation where staff cannot afford to live where they work “ridiculous.”

A veterinary technician either needs to be married to someone who works in the tech industry, be getting parental support, or live with “five other people” to afford Silicon Valley, she said.

Associate veterinarians are fine and typically make four to five times more than the best-paid veterinary technicians, Gill added.

They can still benefit by being in a union, however, by advocating for their staff as well as regaining a say in policy decisions, he said.

Plus, veterinarians have their own financial burdens, especially those fresh out of veterinary school.

“These kids are coming out with $125,000 of debt or more, and they’ll be paying this thing off for years like a mortgage,” Gill said.

“We are woefully underpaid as an industry, and that goes across the board, veterinarians and veterinary staff,” Hughston said.

Giving professionals a voice

Single-owner practices are disappearing quickly; many are being incorporated into pet industry behemoths like Mars.

Just two years ago Gill worked at a two-hospital private practice where he could deal directly with someone in “an office down the hall” rather than at a corporate headquarters across the continent.

“One of the things that drives us [to unionize] is this estrangement from the people who actually pull the levers,” he said.

“If a practice is doing things fairly and managing well and having that relationship with their employees and compensating them competitively, there should be no need for a union,” said Jennie Cruz, hospital director, Western Veterinary Group (WVG), a full-service veterinary clinic in Torrance, Calif.

Mars Petcare currently owns a network of around 2,000 animal clinics in the U.S., according to Gill, and employs 5,000 to 7,000 veterinarians.

“We estimated [Mars] control[s] 10 percent of the U.S. animal hospital market,” Hughston said.

Hughston and Gill both cited veterinary hospital conglomerates—not small animal clinics under private ownership—as the primary focus of their efforts.

In the years to come, 90 percent of those making up the veterinary profession will be employees, Gill said.

“The fact of the matter is the profession has for years been moving away from veterinarians who own their own practice,” he said.

“Most individual owners are taking care of their employees very well, and there is no reason for most employees of those practices to go for a union,” Hughston said. “Those aren’t the people we are hearing from who are interested in this movement.”

Corporate veterinary staff and associate veterinarians can either quit or “they get desperate” and “form a union,” Gill said. “They aren’t being listened to, and I think that’s really the crux of the matter.”

One area where the National Veterinary Professionals Union (NVPU) and independents like Mike Zareski, DVM, veterinarian-owner of Western Veterinary Group in Torrance, Calif., might differ is how to pay for increased salaries and benefits.

“A big part of why people are interested in our movement is that they need better wages,” said Liz Hughston, RVT, CVT, VTS, a San Jose, Calif., veterinary technician and NVPU communications director.

There are many who automatically default to “we’re going to increase the cost to pet owners, and they already don’t want to pay for our services,” she said.

“That’s not the only way to increase wages for people,” she explained. “One example would be that corporations could be willing to accept a lower profit margin in lieu of paying their people a living wage.”

Dr. Zareski said that big corporate veterinary networks “have much deeper pockets and much more resources” than he does.

“From an owner’s point of view, as a single owner, it is already challenging enough to pay the bills and to make payroll and to make for a stimulating and engaging place to work,” he said. “The staff probably doesn’t understand how expensive it is to do business of this scope.”

The industry, at least from Zareski’s perspective as an independent owner, “can afford to only pay so much because there’s no insurance yet involved and it is a cash-based industry.”

Across-the-board wage increases—either requested or demanded—will “equate into either raising prices for the public just like everywhere else or a lowered skilled support staff that comes in,” Zareski said.

“We can work together with management to mitigate these issues and make this a profession that is sustainable, where we’re not losing people at such a rapid clip and where we’re able to keep people in the profession longer, which will end up saving corporations and practices money,” Hughston said. “I really don’t think that it has to be an adversarial relationship.”

Small clinic difference

A behind-the-scenes look at the goings-on at WVG dovetails with Hughston’s view of privately owned animal clinics.

On one visit, the staff was all smiles as they went about their jobs, engaging with a very playful puppy brought in for her shots. The scene was same in the waiting area, as front-desk staff warmly greeted clients and patients, many by name.

“This is a fairly desirable industry to work in, especially in an atmosphere like this; it’s never boring,” said Mike Zareski, DVM, veterinarian-owner of WVG. 
“I don’t disagree with the idea of unionizing and organizing. Maybe it’s a response to the corporate consolidation of things.

“The support staff—the people who really do the hard work—many times are blindsided when these clinics are sold, or a big corporation comes in,” he said, adding that they “probably feel powerless and a little disillusioned” at the loss of the “nice familial atmosphere and practice” they were part of before being bought out.

“Maybe because they have no say when the clinic is sold and what a new owner will or will not do … they might feel like power in numbers will bring a little bit more stability,” Zareski said.

Zareski said has no plans to sell and is “in it for the long haul.”

He added that he wouldn’t be doing his job if his employees felt there was such a big problem that they could only address it through joining a union.

“Our job is to make sure that we’re somewhat of a little union, and we’re making sure everyone in their departments is happy and feeling like they’re compensated well,” Cruz said.

“I’ve made a point to keep my valued employees; I offer them very competitive wages and benefits, and keep everyone happy and engaged,” Zareski said. “We have a wonderful culture here, and that’s been my decision. If those decisions come from elsewhere, then it starts to kind of mix up the vibe. The problem with unionizing is that it almost seems like it is kind of muddying the waters a little bit at least from a private owner.”

End game

Jennie Cruz, hospital director for Western Veterinary Group in Torrence, Calif., said the owner and admin are already like a “little union,” keeping the staff happy and content.

At this stage, the NVPU is local, but those behind the movement want it to represent the entire industry nationwide.

“The way that any unionization works, in any workplace, in any industry, the employees have to vote on unionization, so by its very nature it will be local, certainly to start,” Hughston said.

The NVPU is relying solely on platforms like Facebook and some print coverage, and is slowly gaining support beyond Seattle.

“I am Facebook friends with one of the people on the steering committee, and she occasionally shares posts about the NVPU on her personal Facebook page, so I asked to be a member,” said the anonymous Michigan veterinary technician.

Hughston isn’t worried that the NVPU is thus far a West Coast affair.

“This will be a slow-going process, and I don’t expect it to take immediate effect,” she said. “I think once the movement takes a strong hold on the West Coast, it will quickly spread nationwide. People will step up and volunteer to work on behalf of the union.”

The NVPU has already received its share of corporate backlash and wants to play it closer to the vest moving forward.

“We are trying to keep as much of what we are doing under wraps for now,” Hughston said.

Gill and Hughston hope toward the end of 2018 that the NVPU will be representing several veterinary hospitals in Washington and expand from there.

Gill was asked that if the nationwide push stalled and the NVPU remained a regional movement, if he would still view the endeavor as a success.

“If we get better working conditions for 500 people and that’s the best we do, then I think that’s a win,” he said.

“Hopefully, we will be in that place a year from now, where we have actual dues-paying members, so we can afford to do more outreach once we have some funds coming in,” Hughston said.

In addition to better wages, the NVPU plans include getting practices and veterinary corporations to invest in training, improve staffing, and provide adequate protective equipment.

The NVPU will look to target workplaces for card signing, authorizing a union at their workplace, and from there move to a vote, Hughston said.

“All it takes is to get the majority of people at a workplace to vote and say they want a union and that they want the NVPU to represent them in collective bargaining and that triggers the National Labor Relations Board to come in and hold an election,” she said. “For me, it is really about advancing the profession. I think it is important we feel respected as professionals in terms of veterinary technicians and in terms of the veterinary profession at large.”

Not too long ago, nurses unionized, and the profession grew to become the highly respected one it is today.

“We’re at a very similar place as human nursing was in the 60s and 70s,” Hughston said. “I think if we compared the historic timelines, we’re at about the same place in our professional development as human nursing was when they formed their union.”

The success of the union is very personal to Gill because of all the young people he works with, especially in the technical staff positions, most are in their 20s.

“I’m worried about these people more than I’m worried about people my age, because the future is not bright for working people right now in the country. And that kind of breaks my heart. These are good people.”

The American Veterinary Medical Association takes a neutral approach when it comes to any initiative, especially one with industry-wide implications—especially when it’s a union.

“We respect the right of our members who are employees to self-organize; to form, join, or assist labor organizations, and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing. Similarly, we also respect their right to refrain from any such activity,” said Michael San Filippo, an AVMA spokesman.

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One thought on “Union label within the profession?

  1. Its about time.Veterinary staff are underappreciated by clients. Underpaid by veterinariians.But what do you expect from arrogant owners and their unwillingness to be professionnals and delegate all radiographs like in himan care to boarxed radioligists !Dont even suture cat neuters..would an md leave a sx incision to close that way ?