Strike underway at Mercy Hospital

 After 18 straight days of negotiations, Catholic Health and CWA Local 1133 failed to reach an agreement overnight, triggering a strike at South Buffalo Mercy Hospital.

Both CWA negotiators and Catholic Health said they would work late into the night to try and reach an agreement but remained too far apart on several topics.

In a statement just before 5 a.m., Catholic Health said “Despite Catholic Health hospitals’ best efforts to settle negotiations with CWA, early Friday morning CWA’s bargaining committee walked out of negotiations. Mercy Hospital of Buffalo, Kenmore Mercy Hospital, and St. Joseph Campus were unable to reach an agreement with CWA for six labor contracts covering approximately 2,200 registered nurses and service, technical and clerical associates. As a result, CWA will take workers at Mercy Hospital on strike beginning at 6 a.m.”

2 On Your Side has not yet heard from the CWA on the impending strike.

Out-of-pocket costs for health insurance remained a sticking point late Thursday with most but not all premiums remaining unchanged for the over two thousand contracted union members. Another point of contention has been CWA’s demand for staffing ratios. According to a union update posted at 7 p.m. Thursday the duration of the contract was still in question with the union pushing for a 3-year deal, while Catholic Health wanted 4-years.

Progress had been made in regards to wages, however, with an average raise of almost 4.5% for RNs in the first year and more than 8% for some other workers.

Ten days ago the union notified the healthcare company its strike would begin after the 6:00 a.m. shift change on October 1. To keep the hospital running, Catholic Health said last Friday it had wired several million dollars to the hiring agency Huffmaster, which specializes in supplying staff to healthcare providers during strikes. That temporary staff has been standing in the event of a strike.

Union members have scheduled a press conference for 6 a.m. Friday morning outside South Buffalo Mercy Hospital.

Western New York’s percentage of available hospital beds, on a seven-day rolling average, was down to 27% from 39% in early July, according to data from the state Health Department. And the capacity of intensive care unit beds was 20%, down from 44% in late July and 32% as recently as a week ago.

Hospitals are already coping with staffing disruptions generated by the state’s vaccination mandate for health care workers, which took effect Monday.

Hundreds of health care workers were either put on leave or let go as a result, exacerbating a staffing squeeze that hospitals already were grappling with because of a tight labor market that made it hard to hire new workers.

“It’s a tough time for hospitals right now,” Burstein said. 

Catholic Health vowed to keep Mercy open and operational in the event of a strike, using replacement workers.

“We want to get a deal done as soon as possible, again, that’s fair and equitable, provides competitive wages, addresses health benefits, other issues – staffing, with a trajectory to improve staffing, that’s what we’re committed to and that’s been a commitment of Catholic Health since day one,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan added that this comes as the hospital system is already dealing with staff shortages. Because of this, they’re having to end some services for the time being.

As of Wednesday, Mercy Hospital suspended labor and delivery services, as well as in-patient elective surgery. Ambulances are also being diverted from Mercy Hospital and Mercy Ambulatory Care Center in preparation of this potential strike.

Depending on the floor, staff could see a 1:4 or 1:10 staff to patient ratio.

“It’s heartbreaking when I have to decide which critical patient I really need to take care of,” said Maureen Kryszak from the Emergency Department. “If someone dies, I should be able to spend time with their family. Instead I have to run out of the room and hope that my other patients are still alive, or breathing or stable.”

Catholic Health President and CEO Mark Sullivan said he takes full responsibility for poor conditions and leadership at the hospital. He also said everyone at the negotiating table sees eye to eye and wants the same outcome, but it is a matter of getting there together.

“This can’t be a decision made in an emotional moment,” he said. “The decision we’re making has a trajectory for all those people involved … we’re at a point now where we understand each other. We understand each other’s perspective. We may have a difference in opinion, but we are in a position now were we are in a good spot to get a deal.”

Sullivan said he is confident they will come to an agreement to avoid a strike, but CWA said things are still up in the air and they are ready to strike if necessary.

Mr. Nesselbush stated Kaleida will continue to monitor patient volumes, and patients will be seen at its Buffalo General Medical Center; Williamsville, N.Y.-based Millard Suburban; North Tonawanda, N.Y.-based DeGraff Medical Park; and Erie County Medical Center in Buffalo when needed. Kaleida emergency rooms are open.

Debora Hayes, CWA area director, said the union is committed to working all night until either an agreement is reached or time runs out. As of 7 p.m., however, she said there were still plenty of open proposals to be negotiated, mostly surrounding wages and staffing levels.