BUFFALO, N.Y. — Time has run out for Catholic Health to reach a contract agreement with CWA Local 1133 workers at Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo. Roughly 1,900 workers are now on the picket line. The strike officially began at 6 a.m. on Friday.
Catholic Health offered a $31 million staffing proposal to CWA workers, which has not been accepted. The offer would grant RNs, service, technical and clerical associates average increases in the first contract year while maintaining current benefits. Catholic Health says it also proposed adding new positions in nursing, imaging and service areas.
Staff members are demanding a safer staff-to-patient ratio, more affordable health insurance options and better wages. A spokesperson for Catholic Health says that they strongly believe the ideas presented fairly address workers' concerns over staff-to-patient ratios and their concerns about wages.
"Workers are eager to return quickly, but made clear that the only way the strike would end is a contract that puts patient care first," CWA said.
JoAnn Cavanaugh, of Catholic Health Marketing and PR said, "We respect that our nurses and other healthcare workers are frustrated and fatigued as we continue to work through the COVID-19 pandemic. We strongly believe the contract provisions we presented are fair, provide market-competitive wages and benefits, and address staffing concerns."
On Wednesday, the health system suspended its labor and delivery services and started diverting ambulances in preparation for the strike. Kaleida Health officials say they have since seen an increase in labor and delivery patients at Oishei Children's Hospital, as well as cardiac and stroke cases at Gates Vascular Institute.
They say ambulance traffic at Buffalo General Medical Center was high Thursday and is expected to increase.
All hospitals have been preparing for higher emergency room volumes and stress on bed availability.
Nurses at Mercy Hospital on Thursday described what it has been like to work there throughout the course of the pandemic.
“Very poor conditions,” said Carrie Dilbert, a registered nurse. “The hospital is not kept up the way it needs to be. It’s very dirty. Very low staffed. The morale is terrible. The culture there is terrible.”
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.
“I respect their energy,” Sullivan said Friday afternoon. “They’re our associates too. I respect their energy. Their desire to have a fair contract. Their desire to be able to take a breath. This is a national crisis. And I’m standing here today as the CEO of Catholic Health to tell you I am 100% committed to addressing the crisis. It’s a journey. It can't be a one-day event that’s fixed.”
“We’re willing to go back to the table. We’re willing to work. But throwing a couple of bucks at us at the 11th hour, and thinking we can be bought off on our main issue is completely wrong,” said Debbie Hayes, CWA area director. “And it only goes to show you how tone-deaf and how out of touch this administration is with what the workers need.”
Sullivan said multiple times Friday that patients are their top priority. The hospital is hiring hundreds of fill-in staff for the time being.
There is no set date to return to the negotiation table.