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As Mercy Hospital strike hits one-month mark, both sides report progress amid bitter talks

As Mercy Hospital strike hits one-month mark, both sides report progress amid bitter talks

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One month ago, the sun not yet up Oct. 1, dozens upon dozens of workers poured out of Mercy Hospital's front entrance, joining hundreds of their colleagues on the picket line in South Buffalo.

Since that moment, negotiations have continued but with no deal in sight.

Until Sunday morning, when the Communications Workers of America Local 1133 told its members the two sides "were very close to reaching an agreement" after an all-night bargaining session that concluded at 6 a.m. Catholic Health echoed that Sunday, mentioning the two sides met through much of the weekend and appeared close to a tentative agreement on several occasions before "talks broke down again."

The union said the main outstanding issue is staffing, noting it has concerns about Catholic Health's last proposal. Catholic Health, meanwhile, said it stands by its offer that "includes progressive staffing language." 

After getting some rest, the CWA said it planned to return to the table Monday and "evaluate where we are at."

Despite the progress at the table, much of the language used by the two sides publicly remained bitter Sunday. For instance, Catholic Health just after 3 p.m. announced it had started sending notices to striking workers that the health system would stop paying and administering their health benefit coverage, following up on a warning announced several days earlier.

That followed a week in which both sides had turned up the heat publicly.

CWA is running ads with workers saying Mercy is understaffed, putting patient care at risk. Catholic Health, meanwhile, has claimed the union is showing no sense of urgency, criticizing the CWA's tactics as distracting and brutish. 

Meanwhile, the strike has become one of the most significant work stoppages locally in years, with 2,000 in-demand health care workers on the picket line.

And the costs are building.

Catholic Health is paying millions each week for replacement workers and has been forced to pass patients off to other local hospitals for treatment and procedures, costing it revenue and squeezing capacity at other hospitals – with burned-out staff of their own.

Along Abbott Mercy Hospital Strike (copy)

Hundreds of Mercy Hospital workers picket along Abbott Road early Oct. 1, the first day of a strike following a breakdown in contract talks with Catholic Health. 

The health system claims 50 union-represented nurses have quit since the strike began, deepening the staffing crunch at the heart of negotiations. 

The CWA workers are nearing their second month without paychecks, though union strike checks and unemployment benefits have kicked in. And now they will have to rely on the CWA's relief fund for health benefit coverage.

Both sides have dug in through the first month of the strike, but maybe that will change as we enter November.

"Usually if it goes past a month, it shows that the parties have very real substantive differences that will be difficult to resolve," said Cathy Creighton, a former labor attorney and the director of the Cornell University Industrial and Labor Relations School's Buffalo office.

"I think it also shows that both sides have been traumatized by the Covid pandemic, and they've been working so hard over the last year and a half that the stress is probably also inhibiting reaching an agreement," she said.

The stakes are high in this labor battle, one capable of affecting future negotiations between hospitals and workers – both in the hotly competitive Buffalo Niagara market and beyond.

Where things stand

Catholic Health President and CEO Mark Sullivan stood at a podium inside Mercy Hospital on Tuesday, facing a question about whether he saw talks with the CWA as a "bargaining war."

Moments earlier, he had said Catholic Health was weighing whether to continue paying for the striking workers' health insurance as the walkout neared its second month. Since the strike began, he said, the health system had paid more than $1.3 million for the workers' health benefits, something it was not legally required to do.

"I'm pretty proud of what Catholic Health did for the associates to offer health insurance at a time when we are spending a ton of money on replacement workers," he said. "It's not a bargaining war. This can end today; it can end right now."

While Catholic Health started the day Sunday by saying it had decided to temporarily hold off on issuing notices to workers discontinuing payment of their health insurance, the health system changed its tune just a couple hours later.

"Catholic Health will resume payment and administration upon ratification of the tentative agreement by the membership," the health system said.

In a negotiations update last week, the health system said its latest proposal includes a minimum 3% wage increase in the first year, followed by general wage increases of 2% in the second and third years and 2.75% in the fourth year, up from 2.5% in its proposal before the strike. In a concession, Catholic Health has agreed to make wage increases retroactive to the first full pay period of June.

On perhaps the dispute's biggest topic, staffing, the union said in an update to members Thursday that the "primary issues continue to be around some of the ratios as well as the penalty for not meeting the ratios." In the union's update Sunday, it appears staffing remains the largest impediment to reaching a deal.

While talks continue, the union has broadened its job actions, targeting Catholic Health board members. 

On Wednesday evening, a few workers handed out flyers on the sidewalk in front of the Wegmans on Amherst Street in Buffalo, taking aim at a Western New York-based executive for the supermarket chain who sits on Catholic Health's board. In recent days, the union has circulated the names and phone numbers of Catholic Health's board members, urging workers to call them.

Workers have been going without a paycheck from Catholic Health, but have been collecting weekly checks from the CWA's relief fund since the strike hit day 15 on Oct. 15.

On Friday – day 29 of the strike – those weekly payments increased to $400 per worker. They're also able to file for unemployment benefits, worth up to $504 a week, depending on pay.

But it's still not easy to be out of work.

"We're staying strong. We're taking it one day at a time," said Kevonna Neely, an EKG technician and a certified nursing assistant at Mercy Hospital who has worked at Catholic Health for 12 years. "Of course, we want to get back to work, but we also want to go back to work with a fair, decent contract and be able to take care of our patients efficiently and have the resources that we need."

Mercy Hospital Strike

The scenery in front of Mercy Hospital of Buffalo on Abbott Road is unchanged and continuing as the CWA strike labors on Friday, Oct. 29, 2021.

Potential fallout

Since the beginning of the strike, Larry Zielinski said he believes there's been way too much negotiating in the media by both sides. Back-and-forth emotions and dialogue belong at the bargaining table, he said.

"You keep them in the room until you can come to a conclusion," said Zielinski, a former Buffalo General Medical Center president who is now an executive in residence in health care administration at the University at Buffalo. "When you start to air these kinds of things, all it does is antagonize the other side. And unfortunately, that's what it's gotten to."

More of that has happened over the last week.

Union members on Thursday night, reasoning that "CHS seems to think that eating food while picketing = 'tailgating,' " decided to have a tailgate on the picket line while wearing Buffalo Bills gear. Days earlier, Catholic Health had issued a news release of its own, claiming the CWA was showing "no sense of urgency" in getting its members back to work.

On Thursday, Catholic Health doubled down on that stance, arguing the union had "escalated its pressure tactics" with the television commercials and by leafletting board members' businesses.

At his news conference Tuesday, Sullivan claimed the health system has heard from a growing number of employees who want to settle negotiations.

Since the strike began, he said, more than 50 CWA-represented nurses have resigned from Mercy Hospital, including more than a dozen from the intensive care unit. That could only worsen staffing shortages at Catholic Health at a time when hospital officials across the region say it's become difficult to hire.

At nearby Erie County Medical Center, President and CEO Thomas J. Quatroche Jr. said the hospital has seen some nurses from Mercy Hospital apply for positions in the emergency department and critical care since the strike began. He didn't have an exact number of applications and noted there's typically "movement between our institutions" when it comes to workers.

Kaleida CEO Robert Nesselbush said the health system may have gotten a few applications from Mercy workers, though he wouldn't qualify it as a meaningful uptick.

Sullivan also expressed concern about long-term ramifications on the health system.

“This ongoing strike is further harming our ability to recruit the talent necessary here, the skilled associates to meet those staffing needs here at Mercy Hospital," he said.

But Nesselbush and other health care executives are closely watching what happens at Mercy, especially since Kaleida will soon be negotiating a new labor deal for thousands of its workers, with the current deal expiring at the end of May.

"A lot of things that are at the forefront of people's thinking is, how do we make this better for both the workers and for the hospitals and health care systems?" Nesselbush said.

"And so, I mean we really need to properly compensate people for the really valuable work that they're doing. I'm pretty supportive of that," he said. "But we also have to recognize that the current reimbursement system does not really support us well.”

Lasting impact

Zielinski knows how a strike can linger into an organization's future.

As Buffalo General's president from 2008 to 2011, he remembers hearing nurses talk about their strike at Buffalo General in 1983 that lasted 79 days. 

Debora Hayes, CWA's area director who is at the table negotiating with Catholic Health, actually played a key role in forming the local union of nurses at Buffalo General and leading them during the 1983 strike as they fought for their first contract. 

And while the 1980s was a different time in the history of labor strikes, the Mercy Hospital walkout is starting to rank among the region's longest for nurses, who almost never went on strike in the last 20 years.

In 2001, 170 registered nurses at what was then St. Joseph Hospital in Cheektowaga went on strike for three weeks before approving a new deal. That same year, 127 registered nurses at Lockport Memorial Hospital went on strike for five weeks.

In 1987, a nurses strike at DeGraff Memorial Hospital in North Tonawanda – Hayes was involved in that one, too – lasted 13 weeks.

"Health care strikes are rare and when they do occur, they are normally very short-lived," Zielinski said.

So far this year, there have been 198 labor strikes across the country, according to the Cornell-ILR Labor Action Tracker. Of those, 24 have been in health care and social assistance – none longer than the ongoing nurses' strike at Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Mass., that started in March.

In Rochester, the unions representing 1,800 service workers at Strong Memorial Hospital and University of Rochester on Friday announced they had reached a two-year tentative agreement, one week after the previous deal expired and members authorized issuing a 10-day notice of job action to their employer.

Zielinski said if he was leading a health organization with a union contract ready to bargain over, he'd be making one message clear to his negotiators. 

"I'm telling my negotiators, 'Don't let this happen here,' " he said. "Don't let it erode to what it's eroded to at Mercy."

Jon Harris can be reached at 716-849-3482 or jharris@buffnews.com.

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I'm a Genesee County native and Syracuse University grad who covered business at the (Binghamton) Press & Sun-Bulletin and at The Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I joined The Buffalo News in September 2021, covering the business of health care.

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