VSES: First Veterinary practice on East Coast to unionize

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BRIGHTON, N.Y. (WHEC) — An historic day in the Rochester area. Workers at a local animal hospital voted to unionize. Union officials say it’s the first veterinary practice to unionize on the East Coast.

It’s happening at a place that has already been in the news this week. One-hundred and thirty workers at Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Services (VSES) in Brighton are now in a union. The vote Friday was 65 to 28 to unionize.

VSES is the only 24-hour animal hospital in the Rochester area, but starting Monday it will be closed overnight. That has a lot of pet parents very upset, but the licensed veterinary technicians, veterinary assistants and front desk staff who work there are hoping this move will help.

Across the nation, workers say veterinary offices have been dealing with employee burnout, low pay and under-staffing.

John Annechino is a surgery technician at VSES. He’s been there for 12 years.

"We’re hoping for improvement to working conditions. Salaries could help us recruit more people. It has been very difficult for animal hospitals to maintain a functional level of staffing," Annechino said. "So we’re trying to make it a more attractive place to work. That will help us get back to the level where we can see 24-hour Emergency Service come back."

The workers at VSES are now part of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) which partnered with the National Veterinary Professionals Union (NVPU).

"We have an opportunity to look at wages. We have to look at staffing levels. We have an opportunity to balance between work and life," explained IAM Grand Lodge Representative Michael Evans. "I think it’s always important that workers organize and take the opportunity to work with their employer to have a discussion of the value of their labor and what that means is success of the company."

You may not know it, but Thrive Pet Healthcare bought up most of our local animal hospitals including VSES. Union leaders ay Thrive’s controlling shareholder is private equity firm TSG Consumer Partners.

Thrive sent News10NBC the following statement:

"Today, team members at Veterinary Specialists & Emergency Service in Rochester, N.Y. participated in a National Labor Relations Board-conducted secret ballot election and voted in favor of representation by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM).

"We firmly believe that our teams are better served without union representation but respect the election-related process. We remain committed to creating a supportive and thriving environment for our teams and serving our patients and pet families."

"Hopefully, taking this step will help professionalize staff to the point where they can’t just come in and kind of dictate terms of their employment and allow us to actually provide quality care that animals/pets deserve," Annechino said.

VSES workers hope this move will set an example for veterinary workers all across the nation.

"Today’s victory put the veterinary industry and private equity investors on notice about making sure their business model is based on equity and respect," said IAM International President Robert Martinez Jr. "We can’t afford to let this industry go the path of so many other industries destroyed by private equity investors. Now the hard work begins."

Liz Hughston is the President of the National Veterinary Professionals Union. She says the pandemic has exposed several issues impacting workers in veterinary medicine.

"These issues have created a significant crisis in our industry. The only solution to combat this crisis is what the workers at VSES have done by creating a voice in their workplace," said Hughston. "This labor-management partnership will make VSES a hospital that is better for employees, pet owners, and the pets they serve in the Rochester community."