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Amid bargaining, report criticizes staffing at Catholic Health hospitals

Amid increasingly tense contract negotiations, a labor advocacy group will release a report Tuesday critical of Catholic Health Systems’ staffing levels.

The low staff levels at the system’s hospitals have taken a physical and emotional toll on nurses and other employees and have at times left patients receiving delayed or substandard care, according to the Western New York Workers’ Rights Board.

“They have consciously adopted a policy of short-staffing, and it has dire repercussions,” Joan Malone, a Workers’ Rights Board member and former director of the Coalition for Economic Justice, a group aligned with the board.

Catholic Health officials said they couldn’t comment on a report they hadn’t seen yet. The claims require further investigation, said JoAnn Cavanaugh, a system spokeswoman.

“Staffing is a complex issue affected by volume fluctuations and numerous other factors,” Cavanaugh said. “We are committed to addressing staffing needs throughout our organization.”

Catholic Health is made up of Kenmore Mercy Hospital; Mercy Hospital of Buffalo; Sisters of Charity Hospital; Sisters of Charity’s St. Joseph Campus, in Cheektowaga; and Mount St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston, as well as several outpatient clinics and nursing homes.

Seventeen people testified at a July 6 hearing held by the board. Testimony from the hearing was used to prepare the report. Malone said the Workers’ Rights Board did not independently verify the workers’ claims.

Among those who testified was Wendy Byer, who has worked for 34 years as a licensed practical nurse and registered nurse. She now works at Mercy Hospital’s neuro intensive care unit.

“You get exhausted, and it gets overwhelming, and it goes down to the patient, too,” Byer told The Buffalo News.

She said patients on her unit can be heavy, and generally are not awake, and they need to be turned regularly to avoid getting pressure ulcers. That requires the aid of a second or third nurse or other employee. Byer said she hurt her back from lifting patients and will need surgery followed by an extensive recovery time.

Catholic Health’s Cavanaugh said Mercy Hospital has about 875 nurses on staff and has hired the first 71 of an additional 110 planned for the hospital.

Speaking generally, “we have long-standing protocols in place for all our associates – including those represented by labor unions – to share ideas, resolve issues and provide constructive feedback, including fair treatment review as well as established grievance and arbitration procedures,” Cavanaugh said in a statement.

The report, “Understaffed and Overworked: A looming crisis for patients, employees and Catholic Health,” will be available as one of the first links at cejbuffalo.org.

Catholic Health officials believe they have a good working relationship with their labor unions, Cavanaugh said. They also said they have agreed to hold joint labor-management meetings with the Communications Workers of America with a facilitator of the union’s choice.

The report comes as Catholic Health bargains with CWA and several other unions.

Catholic Health said the coalition is trying to “intervene” in the contract talks. Malone said the coalition and the Workers’ Rights Board are independent from the CWA.

email: swatson@buffnews.com

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