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As strike looms at Mercy Hospital, the stakes are high

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Mercy Hospital

Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo.

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With a possible strike at Mercy Hospital starting on Friday morning, there's a lot at stake:

• Catholic Health System is spending "millions" of dollars to ensure the hospital stays open with replacement workers, and has already suspended some patient services at Mercy.

• Unionized workers at the hospital – about 2,000 of them represented by the Communications Workers of America – would trade their jobs and paychecks for a picket line.

• The community faces the impact of a walkout at a hospital amid a Covid-19 pandemic that continues to stress the region's health care system and workers.

"I think (a strike) would be a disaster for all three parties," said Larry Zielinski, a former president of Buffalo General Medical Center.

Talks continued Wednesday between CWA and Catholic Health. They are negotiating six contracts covering 2,500 workers at three facilities, but under a previous agreement, a strike could only happen at Mercy. The CWA has warned a strike could start Friday if a new deal isn't reached by then.

Here is what a strike could mean:

For Catholic Health

A strike would impact care provided to patients at Mercy, said Zielinski, an executive in residence for health care administration at the University at Buffalo School of Management. "That's going to have an impact on (Catholic Health's) financial situation, which is already stressed because of the pandemic, along with all the other health systems in the country."

A strike could damage the hospital's workplace culture, too, said Zielinski, who was Buffalo General's president from 2008 to 2011.

"When I was there, there were nurses that were still talking about the Buffalo General strike in 1983," he said. "These things have a lasting impact on culture, and I think that's underappreciated but I think it's very important in health care."

Catholic Health last week said it had wired "several million dollars" – one of several payment installments – to Huffmaster, the Michigan-based staffing firm providing replacement workers to keep the hospital running. Catholic Health declined to disclose the exact dollar amount.

"That's a necessary step," Zielinski said of bringing in replacement workers. "The Health Department will require that, and that's prudent if a strike does occur. But it's a poor substitute for their actual staff, and they know that."

A replacement registered nurse might have qualifications similar to those of a permanent staffer, but won't have the same familiarity with the hospital, patients or physicians, he said.

Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business, said Huffmaster is essentially a crisis staffing firm, a company that specializes in gathering workers across the country and shipping them, quickly, to the facility where a strike threat looms.

“In some businesses, you can close down,” Gordon said. “In other businesses, you really don’t want to close down – for example, the hospital industry. They’re ‘Ghostbusters.’ They’re who you call when you got a big problem.”

Bringing in a firm such as Huffmaster also serves as a negotiating tactic, Gordon said.

“A union will use a strike to put pressure on an employer, and an employer will use somebody like Huffmaster to take some of the pressure off,” he said. “If you look at the strike as a negotiating power play, you can look at bringing in temporary employees as a defense to the power play.”

But contracting with Huffmaster also comes with a high short-term cost. Listings on Huffmaster’s website for positions at “an acute care facility in New York State” with a labor dispute looming range from $95-an-hour physical therapy assistant to registered nurse positions, which pay $115 to $150 an hour, depending on hospital department.

So what an employer has to weigh – in this case, Catholic Health – is the short-term high price of temporary workers versus the long-term financial costs of compromising with the union demands, Gordon said.

Getting workers from Huffmaster lined up also indicates to Gordon that Catholic Health and CWA might not be that close in negotiations.

“If you’re just a little apart, you’re not going to bring in temporary workers and pay through the nose,” Gordon said. “It gives you some idea of how far apart they are if they do this. When the people are close, they look at each other and say, ‘Hey, let’s work something out here.’ ”

For workers

While Catholic Health faces cost pressures connected to the strike, so do the unionized workers.

A strike would put on the street about 2,000 nurses and other staff members at Mercy represented by CWA. They would not be eligible to collect state unemployment benefits or CWA strike benefits until the 15th day of a walkout, according to the union.

CWA's strike benefits are $300 a week starting after day 15 of a strike, and $400 a week after day 29 of a strike, the union said. 

"I'm sure, for a nurse, it's got to be super tough to make that decision," said Joëlle J. Leclaire, associate professor of economics and finance at SUNY Buffalo State. "Those are probably the main breadwinner, if not the only breadwinner in their families. The decision to go on strike is certainly not taken lightly from anyone's perspective."

But nurses have expressed frustration over their working conditions and staffing levels at the hospital, to the point where they are contemplating a walkout, Leclaire said.

Strikes at hospitals are rare in the Buffalo Niagara region. There were two in 2001, at then-St. Joseph Hospital and Lockport Memorial Hospital.

For the community

The community would be caught up in a strike at Mercy, too.

"Every person in this community is a cog in a wheel," Leclaire said. "We all participate in making this society and community the way it is, so that we can maintain health, maintain our level of education, maintain our levels of well-being. Every person plays a part, and when that person isn't playing their part, the system doesn't work as well. The nurses withdrawing their services is going to definitely have an impact on the well-being of our community."

Catholic Health has vowed to keep Mercy running with qualified personnel, and submitted a plan to the state Department of Health for continuing to provide services.

But this week, in preparation for a possible walkout, Mercy suspended some patient services, including inpatient elective surgeries, and labor and delivery services. Ambulances are being diverted from Mercy and Mercy Ambulatory Care Center, although those facilities remain open to walk-in patients. 

Catholic Health's competitors are preparing for a larger influx of patients, in light of those service disruptions.

“We are hopeful that the impact on operations for area hospitals amid Catholic Health’s labor dispute is minimal,” said Bob Nesselbush, Kaleida Health's CEO. “That said, it is important to point out that we intend to remain open and provide access to services across our organization.

The outlook:

Zielinski remains hopeful the two sides will avert a strike.

"The union's doing what they are hired to do, which is to try to get the best deals possible for their workers," he said. "And the health system of course is under duress. I think they'll probably take this to the bitter end, but I would be surprised and very disappointed if they don't come to a conclusion and avoid a strike."

Matt Glynn

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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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