The high-stakes labor talks at Kaleida Health aren't the only contract negotiations ongoing in Western New York's health care scene.
Here's another one that just got rolling: Erie County Medical Center started bargaining Thursday with the New York State Nurses Association on a new contract for more than 1,300 registered nurses at the Buffalo medical complex. The current contract expires Dec. 31.
Improving staffing and efforts to recruit and retain nurses are expected to play a major role in the talks.
"We really want them to give us the tools to do our job, with adequate staffing and a safe work environment," said Steve Bailey, a registered nurse at ECMC's Terrace View Long-Term Care Facility and Western New York regional director of the Nurses Association.
Bailey, who has been a nurse for 30 years, including 10 at ECMC, and in the medical profession for more than 40 years, said staffing improved a little bit during previous impact bargaining with ECMC that occurred because of how much the job had changed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But more improvements are needed, Bailey said.
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Cornell University researchers documented 180 strikes across the country, involving 78,000 workers, through the first half of 2022, up from 102 walkouts with 26,500 employees through the first six months of last year.
ECMC said in a statement that it is "looking forward to productive discussions with NYSNA as we have had in the past."
"We agree that staffing has been a concern for hospitals locally and nationally," the statement said. "That's why this year, we developed an agreed upon staffing plan with NYSNA and approved a mid-contract 7.75% increase in wages for our RNs to be more competitive in the market and support recruitment. This year, ECMC has successfully recruited 230 RNs and 51 LPNs.
"We are hopeful that our union partners will also work with us to garner necessary resources from government and private payors, so we can adequately serve the most vulnerable in our community in the midst of unprecedented financial uncertainty."
Like the ongoing talks at Kaleida, negotiations at ECMC also will pit a financially bruised health system – ECMC had a loss of $79 million in 2020, followed by a loss of about $22 million last year – against exhausted health care workers who want to see major improvements in staffing so more of their colleagues don't leave for another field, retirement or high-paying travel work.
If anything, Bailey noted, the travel nurses have showed staff nurses what the job is truly worth. While health systems have been affected financially, he noted that, somehow, the money always seems to be there to secure travel workers.
About 6,300 Kaleida union workers will vote Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday on whether to give their bargaining committee the authority to call a strike if negotiations stall or tensions escalate.
If health systems are struggling to find workers, Bailey said, they are not paying them enough or they are asking them to do too much.
"If we don't take these steps and this opportunity in time to transform the profession, then it will never happen," he said. "We're going to come out of this crisis new and improved."
The negotiations involve about one-third of ECMC's employees. The organization reached contracts that were ratified earlier this year by union members represented by CSEA and AFSCME.
Nurses at ECMC are just some of the 30,000 New York State Nurses Association members who will soon be bargaining contracts for the first time since the start of the pandemic.