BRATTLEBORO -- A union representing 550 workers at Brattleboro Retreat has approved a new contract that features a more-intensive effort to address safety concerns at the 179-year-old psychiatric hospital.
The two-year deal includes a "collaborative work group" designed to "continuously monitor and respond to any safety issues" for staff and patients, union and management representatives said in a joint announcement Friday.
In separate interviews, both sides praised the new committee as a step forward and a key part of the contract agreement.
"That is, I would say, a major part of this," said Thomas Flood, a Retreat mental-health worker and a union president. "We're trying to work together to ensure that patients get the best care -- that patients stay safe and workers stay safe."
Robert Simpson, the Retreat's president and chief executive officer, said the safety committee is a "very important group" for staff and administrators.
"It's important that union and management agree to work together on a fundamental issue in a psychiatric hospital," Simpson said.
Acrimonious, extended contract negotiations between the Retreat and Local 5086 of the United Nurses and Allied Professionals made headlines last year.
The union staged several informational pickets outside the Retreat. Issues included salaries, benefits and staffing, and it did not help that the Retreat eliminated more than 30 positions during the process.
In December, the union ratified a new contract that ran only through the end of this month.
At the time, administrators said uncertainties in health-care costs made it difficult to commit to a longer-term deal. On Friday, Simpson also cited the dramatic changes in Vermont's mental-health system given the closure of the Vermont State Hospital due to flooding from Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011.
"We wanted to see how this year was going to go," he said.
An influx of severely mentally ill patients at the Retreat -- patients who previously would have been treated at the state hospital -- contributed to safety concerns for staff.
So, while the new contract announced Friday includes wage increases and expanded health-insurance options, those involved in the deal also touted its "additional processes focused on safety management."
Bonnie Chase, another union president, said the "contract represents important gains in economic security and patient and staff safety."
Simpson said Retreat administrators work on assessing the facility's safety "every single day." But the new collaborative work group is expected to enhance that effort.
"Given the acute challenge in absorbing the state hospital and the issues relating to making sure people are safe, we want to work together on this," Simpson said. "It will reinforce all the other safety initiatives we have."
Administrators and union representatives also commented on an aspect of the contract that won't be found in the fine print: The deal, they said, was remarkably easy to come by.
Flood recalled that last year's one-year contract "took us probably about three to four months to get to." For the new two-year deal, talks began in early September.
There was an emphasis on productive, face-to-face negotiations with limited participation from lawyers, Flood said. He also praised Simpson for attending all bargaining sessions.
"To have the CEO present at each and every meeting helped a lot," Flood said.
The contract, Flood said, "moves us away from the constant adversarial relations that we've had in the past."
Citing an "atmosphere of mutual respect," Chase added that union representatives were "as pleased with the conduct of the negotiations as we are with the content of the new agreement."
And in a prepared statement accompanying announcement of the deal, Simpson praised the "collaborative spirit and professionalism exhibited by every member of the negotiating teams."
"I believe our new agreement will put us on a strong, ongoing path of partnership that underscores the Brattleboro Retreat as an employer of choice in the region and a national leader in the field of psychiatric and addiction medicine," Simpson said.
The Retreat has a total workforce of 792, which is almost twice the size of the facility's staff in 2007. During that same time period, the Retreat "has added several unique specialty programs and increased its inpatient bed capacity," administrators said.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.