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Union officials say 'historic agreement' with Kaleida Health will boost recruitment, retention of workers

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Kaleida Union Press Conference

Cori Gambini, CWA Local 1168 president, and Jim Scordato, Western New York hospital division for 1199SEIU vice president, address the media during a news conference held by Communications Workers of America, Local 1168, and 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East in Buffalo on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022. 

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A little more than a week ago, community leaders were growing concerned a strike notice would soon hit Kaleida Health, which would have put in motion the possibility of a massive walkout at Western New York's largest health system.

But by Friday, the momentum in the negotiations started to shift. The bargaining days got more productive and longer, stretching into the early morning hours.

It culminated Sunday night, when the two labor unions and Kaleida reached common ground on the negotiation's biggest hurdle: staffing. As Western New York snoozed, the two sides at about 12:15 a.m. Monday announced a tentative deal on a new three-year collective bargaining agreement covering about 6,300 Kaleida workers.

"I believe we negotiated a historic agreement here that will put us in a position to recruit and retain health care workers of all job titles," said Cori Gambini, president of Communications Workers of America, Local 1168.

Kaleida President and CEO Don Boyd, who assumed the top job at the health system in mid-July while negotiations were about four months in, said it was a fair contract that boosts wages, addresses staffing and puts Kaleida in a strong position moving forward as it navigates a challenging health care landscape. 

"It's really the win-win-win: a win for our employees, a win for Kaleida Health and, most importantly, a win for our community," Boyd said inside Buffalo General Medical Center on Monday.

Both sides declined to provide too many specifics until union members had a chance to review details of the contract, which will be retroactive to June 1 and run through May 31, 2025. Union leaders expressed confidence Monday that members will ratify the agreement once the vote is scheduled in the coming weeks.

A summary sheet posted Monday evening on CWA Local 1168's website, however, provided some details: For example, clerical, professional, registered nurse, service and technical employees would see a general wage increase of 4% in each year of the three-year deal. 

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, in a tweet Monday, thanked the bargaining teams for their nonstop negotiations through the weekend, noting a Kaleida-wide strike would have significantly affected Western New York's health care industry. 

And it would have been costly.

Had a strike occurred, it could have cost Kaleida up to $23 million a week in replacement staff, which would have been a crippling economic blow on top of whatever patient revenue it would have lost because of delayed procedures and patient transfers.

Union members, too, would have taken on financial risk during a strike, considering strike benefits and state unemployment eligibility don't kick in until the 15th day of a walkout. And it's very likely, given the scale of such a strike, that some patients would have needed to be transferred outside of this region for treatment.

"Our goal was always to get an agreement," said Jim Scordato, vice president of the Western New York hospital division for 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. "Our goal was never to go on strike. And Kaleida heard that. People in the community heard that, our local leaders all heard that."

The two sides were able to avoid what played out almost exactly a year ago when union members walked off the job at Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo, a strike that lasted nearly six weeks before the two sides reached a tentative deal that set staffing ratios that made Kaleida competitor, Catholic Health System, the market leader. 

So when Kaleida and the two unions sat down for the first time in mid-March, the goal was very clear: meet or exceed the Catholic Health contract.

Gambini, who was involved in the Catholic Health negotiations, too, said Kaleida union workers will be ahead of the Catholic Health contract in terms of wages and benefits.

"The ratios that we obtained in the contract are maybe better in some areas than the Catholics, and maybe the Catholics have us in an area but it's by just a tiny bit," Gambini said. "I'm very proud of this agreement."

A bargaining report posted on the CWA's website included more than 20 pages of specific staffing ratios. For instance, on Buffalo General's 16th-floor adult medical-surgical area, the ratio is one registered nurse for every four patients on the day shift, and one registered nurse for every five patients on the night shift.

Gambini and Scordato said the contract addresses every one of the unions' six goals in the talks: dignity and respect on the job; safe staffing; job security; boosted wages; pension improvements; and no concessions.

Gambini said the deal's staffing incentive plan will allow union members who pick up extra shifts to make very close to the money that travel workers do. 

"You're going to see the ability for our members to make some really good money by signing up for extra shifts," said Gambini, a registered nurse. 

Another snippet was provided by Boyd, who noted the contract identified opportunities for weekend-only positions where an employee could still be full time and have benefits.

Further, Boyd confirmed Kaleida increased its previous economic proposal that was valued at $200 million over three years, though he didn't get specific.

In addition, both sides confirmed they were able to build on work done as part of the state-mandated clinical staffing committee process, which was due to create 436 full-time-equivalent positions across Buffalo General/Gates Vascular Institute, Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital/DeGraff Medical Park and Oishei Children's Hospital. 

After negotiations, that 436 figure was increased to more than 500 positions. 

The agreement covers about two-thirds of Kaleida's payroll, including nurses, dietary workers, personal care attendants, service and maintenance workers, among many others, across several Kaleida facilities, including Buffalo General Medical Center, Oishei Children's Hospital, Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, HighPointe on Michigan, DeGraff Medical Park and many clinics.

Kimberly Kornowski, a registered nurse at Millard Fillmore and a 15-year Kaleida employee, said she's excited to get the contract details to members, many of whom are exhausted from two-plus years of battling a pandemic and watching an increasing number of their colleagues leave for new jobs, travel gigs or early retirement. 

"We have fought long and hard to have ratios in the hospitals to be able to give good patient care and to be proud to walk out the door and say, 'We did the best job we could,' " she said. "And I think that we've created the steppingstone to get there."

Jon Harris can be reached at 716-849-3482 or jharris@buffnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ByJonHarris.

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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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