BUFFALO, N.Y. — Health care workers from Mercy Hospital have been asking for safer staffing levels, better wages and better health benefits from Catholic Health.

On Thursday, hospital staff voted to authorize a strike if Catholic Health does not come up with a new contract to address their needs.

"Strike in any work situation is an absolute last resort, but that is especially true in a hospital,” said Debora Hayes, Communications Workers of America (CWA) area director.

Hayes says that shows how desperate health care workers at Mercy Hospital are. The workers, represented by CWA, say there is a staffing crisis. Jackie Ettipio, a registered nurse at the hospital, says the issue isn't new, but COVID-19 made it worse.

"We are just exhausted and we've been beaten down physically, mentally and there's nothing left,” she said.

Ettipio says in the emergency room, staffing levels have gotten as bad as eight patients to one nurse.

“We have paralyzed, ventilated patients that are getting one nurse to eight — eight patients to one nurse,” she said. “These nurses have to take care of this person with their bodily functions. They have to be cleaned. They have to be fed. There's tons of medications coming through. They need special care. You just cannot do it."

That's not all members of CWA Local 1133 are concerned about.

"We're hoping to get a fair wage and we're hoping to not have our health care taken,” said Ettipio. “They want to give us high deductible. They're offering us 1%, and we really cannot live on that.

Union representatives say the frontline workers voted with 97% support to strike if Catholic Health does not offer them a new contract before their current one expires on September 30. Until then, the workers will bargain.

“We asked to escalate the bargaining schedule and hopefully starting next week, we'll bargain five days a week instead of three days a week,” said Hayes. “We will continue to pound away.”

Catholic Health released a statement following the vote:

"We are disappointed CWA Local 1133 is threatening to strike at Mercy Hospital. It is unconscionable the union would take registered nurses and other crucial healthcare workers away from patients’ bedsides and out of our hospital to walk the picket line while COVID-19 cases continue to rise in our community. Mercy Hospital will remain open and operational if CWA Local 1133 decides to lead associates on strike. A multi-disciplinary team at Mercy Hospital has developed a comprehensive strike contingency plan that includes hiring fully licensed, highly experienced, vaccinated, temporary replacement nurses and other qualified staff who will provide uninterrupted care to our patients. Many Mercy Hospital associates have been quietly expressing dissatisfaction with their union’s actions and rhetoric against their hospital. They are feeling pressured by CWA leaders and fear union retaliation for challenging its handling of negotiations and threat to strike. Others have shared frustration with CWA that the strike pay it may provide during a strike is only a fraction of the money they would earn caring for patients and performing their jobs. Mercy Hospital remains committed to bargaining in good faith with our associates’ union to settle these contracts without further delay or disruption as we did recently with the SEIU for other contacts at St. Joseph Campus and two of our long-term care facilities. With nearly three weeks until the contracts expire on September 30, we believe there is sufficient time to reach fair, market-competitive contracts that will allow us to continue providing safe, high-quality care and service to our patients and competitive wages and benefits to recruit and retain the best associates at Mercy Hospital."