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What's at stake for CWA, Catholic Health as contract deadline nears

What's at stake for CWA, Catholic Health as contract deadline nears

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Mercy Hospital

Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo.

With a week and a half to go until their contracts expire, Catholic Health System and hourly workers at three health care facilities are trying to reach a new deal.

Looming over the talks is the Communications Workers of America's threat of a strike at Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo.

Here is a look at where things stand as the Sept. 30 deadline approaches:

Q: What happens if the workers go on strike at Mercy Hospital?

A: The CWA on Monday gave Mercy Hospital a 10-day notice of its intent to strike, starting Oct. 1, if a new deal isn't reached by then. The 10-day notice is required by law to allow a hospital time to prepare for a walkout.

"I want to assure our community that our top priority is the welfare and safety of our patients, and our hospital will remain open and operational during a strike to continue providing safe, high quality care," said Eddie Bratko, president of Mercy Hospital.

Catholic Health must submit a contingency plan to the state Department of Health, explaining how it would maintain services. The health system notes that the union could still withdraw the strike notice.

The CWA claimed Catholic Health was "refusing to settle a fair contract that will allow the hospital system to attract and retain the workers needed to provide care to the community."

“We are going on strike for our patients and for our community,” said Tina Knop, a critical care registered nurse at Mercy Hospital.

Q: What about the two other facilities covered by the labor contracts?

A: The CWA represents a total of 2,500 workers at Mercy Hospital, Kenmore Mercy Hospital and Sisters of Charity/St. Joseph Campus. The workers are covered by a total of six contracts. Of the three facilities, a strike could happen only at Mercy Hospital.

That is the result of an agreement between the CWA and Catholic Health five years ago that barred a strike at Kenmore Mercy and the Sisters of Charity/St. Joseph Campus when the contracts expire. Mercy Hospital is the biggest of the three.

Q: What would the state Department of Health’s role be in case of a strike?

A: “In the event of a strike, the department provides guidance for preparations the facility should make to prepare for the strike, collects information regarding facility readiness to maintain its operations and monitors the status of the facility during the strike period for its capacity to maintain adequate health care resources to meet the needs of the impacted region,” said Erin Silk, a Health Department spokeswoman.

Q: Are Catholic Health and the CWA still negotiating?

A: Yes. The two sides negotiated over the weekend and they plan to meet each day for at least the next 10 days, said JoAnn Cavanaugh, a spokeswoman for Catholic Health.

"We remain cautiously optimistic we can settle these negotiations without a strike, but both parties must be focused at the table this week, and work collaboratively to find more common or middle ground," Cavanaugh said.

Q: Who would go on strike at Mercy if it comes to that?

A: About 2,000 CWA-represented employees work at Mercy, including nurses and service, technical and clerical workers.

Q: What are key issues in the talks?

A: The CWA has made staffing levels a prominent issue. The union contends the health system needs to hire more employees to help relieve an overtaxed workforce, especially with the strain of the pandemic.

"We need staffing ratios that ensure workers have the support they need and patients receive the care they deserve," said Debora Hayes, the CWA's area director.

Cavanaugh said Catholic Health is actively recruiting to fill jobs, but has faced some of the same challenges as other employers around the country struggling to hire in a tight labor market. The health system is working with recruiters locally, statewide and nationwide, and conducting virtual and in-person interviews of candidates, she said.

"Introducing staffing ratios to the contract during a national labor shortage, as the union is proposing, will not create a competitive advantage for Catholic Health hospitals, nor will it help recruit and retain nurses and other health care workers," Cavanaugh said.

Matt Glynn

The Buffalo News: Good Morning, Buffalo

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