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Agreement reached to keep open Waterfront Health Care Center; Workers settle with new operator

The Waterfront Health Care Center on Buffalo's West Side will remain open under an agreement between union workers and a new operator.

The state Health Department announced Wednesday that the 120-bed facility that had previously been part of the Kaleida Health System will change ownership to Specialty Care Group, effective Monday.

When Kaleida announced its plans to close the facility two years ago, it was met with strong opposition not only from Waterfront's employees but members of the community and religious groups, forcing Kaleida to keep Waterfront open.

In March, Specialty Care Group, a long-term care provider out of the New York City area, offered to take control of the facility but demanded wage and benefit cuts from employees. The nearly 200 workers represented by 1199 Service Employees International Union rejected the proposal.

After numerous proposals and counterproposals, both sides agreed to send the dispute to arbitration in late July. A decision is expected in the coming weeks.

"It's been a long, hard fight to keep Waterfront open," said Todd Hobler, vice president of 1199 SEIU. "With Specialty Care Group being appointed receiver and both sides agreeing to binding arbitration to settle the contract dispute, we're finally hopeful for the first time in a long time for the future of Waterfront."

Waterfront attributes its financial problems to cuts in Medicaid reimbursement rates issued by the state. Over the past three years, the facility has lost more than $1.3 million, despite its high occupancy rates.

"The members of 1199 voted to go to arbitration, hoping for a fair settlement," Debbie Rivers, a certified nurse's assistant, said in a statement. "We are willing to make some sacrifices in order to keep Waterfront open. The residents are like our extended family. We don't want to see this place -- their home -- close."

Hobler stressed the importance of Waterfront not only to its employees, but to the community, saying it's the last nursing home on the West Side and the only bilingual facility in the area. He said he hopes that with the resources available, Waterfront will thrive.

"It's not just jobs that were saved," said Hobler. "This is going to remain an important institution right here in our community for the City of Buffalo."