Catholic Health Mercy Hospital workers take to the picket line, citing unsafe staffing, supplies

Protest signs
Nearly 2,000 of the Buffalo, New York hospital's workers have walked off the job after their union and Catholic Health leadership failed to find common ground during contract negotiations. The system's top executive said that the hospital will need to limit some services as a result. (Getty/ONYXprj)

This morning nearly 2,000 union workers at Catholic Health’s Mercy Hospital made good on their threat to walk out over contract negotiations they say do not address the ongoing staffing crisis and its impact on patient care.

The workers are represented by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), which has more than 2,500 nurse, technologist, clerical staff and other service worker members in the Buffalo, New York area.

The union said that 97% of Mercy Hospital members voted earlier this month in favor of authorizing the open-ended strike. Hospital leaders and the union said they were at the negotiation table until just hours before the existing contract expired and the strike was called.

“We are on strike because we can’t go on like this. The situation at our hospital gets worse every day, and if Catholic Health isn’t willing to take a stand for the adequate staffing levels and care our community deserves, we will,” Cheryl Darling, immediate treatment assistant, said in a statement from CWA. “Going on strike was a last resort, but when you witness patients waiting hours for food and medicine, suffering sitting in soiled clothes and falling desperately trying to get to the bathroom on their own, there was no other option.”  

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In prepared remarks for the press, Catholic Health President and CEO Mark Sullivan said this morning that the system has enacted a contingency plan developed in consultation with the New York State Department of Health to limit disruptions in care.

Although the system has brought on certified replacement workers, it will also be limiting the hospital’s emergency department services, elective surgeries and “other services within the facilities such as labor and delivery,” he said.  

“My family and I would come to this hospital today during the strike if healthcare was needed, and of course in the future when our associates come back to work,” he said.

The parties have been in negotiations since February and at the bargaining table “endlessly, day and night” within the last several days, Sullivan said.

On Wednesday night, Catholic Health put forward an offer covering an additional $31 million in additional wages and benefits that the executive said represented “fair and competitive” market wages compared to all the other hospitals where CWA represents workers.

Noting that healthcare worker staffing issues “can’t be addressed overnight” during the midst of a nationwide labor crunch, Sullivan said the system’s proposal included the addition of 10% more workforce above the average daily census, the hiring of 150 to 200 new associates and a $20 million addition to the hospital’s staffing plan.

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Sullivan said that the parties “were close” to an agreement in the final hours before the contract’s deadline and that his side is ready to continue talking.

“We need to do a better job working together with CWA, and they need to do a better job working together with us, to bring this to resolution,” he said. “This is a time when we need to be at the table. We invite the union back to the table to bring this deal to closure.”

CWA’s announcement called for “hundreds” of new hires. The union said that its members are concerned about high turnover and have reported long shifts, “routinely” working through lunch hours, insufficient supplies ranging from syringes and blood tubes to washcloths and urinals.

The union also says that it has the support of the Buffalo community. It pointed to a letter sent by 25 elected officials to Sullivan describing contract proposals at the time to be “completely unacceptable to the heroes who got us through last year.”

“Catholic Health has put us in an impossible position,” the union wrote in a letter to its community. “The last thing we want is to see care disrupted. We ask the Buffalo community to join us in urging Catholic Health to agree to a contract that puts patient care first and gets us back to work serving you.”

A petition circulated by the workers calling on Catholic Health to increase staffing and wages has received nearly 3,500 signatures as of 11:15 a.m. today.