Catholic Health's strike staffing agency receives cease and desist citing picketer interference, insufficient licensing

A temporary staffing service supporting Catholic Health Mercy Hospital through its nearly 2,000-worker union walkout has received a cease-and-desist order from the New York state attorney general.

The firm, Huffmaster, is based in Michigan and markets itself as a specialist in rapid strike staffing for healthcare, security and other industries.

According to the letter signed by New York Labor Bureau Chief Karen Cacace, the state’s attorney general’s office has received complaints that Huffmaster was acting as an employment agency as well as a “watch, guard or patrol agency” without a license for either role. It is illegal for a single company to be licensed for both services in New York, the office wrote.

The letter also references complaints that Huffmaster employees were illegally interfering with the demonstrating picketers’ right to protest.

“Please immediately cease providing services to Mercy Hospital as either an employment agency or watch, guard or patrol agency, and ensure that Huffmaster employees are not interfering with the picketers’ right to protest,” the office wrote to Huffmaster President Gregory Johnson.

One picketer corroborated the interference, telling a Buffalo-area ABC affiliate that Huffmaster employees serving as security at the hospital’s front gate had “been nasty” to the demonstrators, yelling and pushing some female picketers inappropriately.

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Wednesday, Mercy Hospital released a brief statement asserting that the nurses and other replacement workers caring for its patients during the strike have the appropriate credentials to work in New York.

“The New York State Health Department has visited Mercy Hospital several times during the strike and has found the care and service to be in compliance with state regulations,” the hospital wrote in the statement. “Huffmaster Companies is in contact with the Attorney General’s office to address their questions.”

Huffmaster did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

The workers’ strike is now entering its second week. It comes after Mercy Hospital leadership and employees represented by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) could not find common ground on a new employment contract.

Oct. 1, Catholic Health President and CEO Mark Sullivan said the system had made a “fair and competitive” offer with $31 million in additional wages and benefits plus plans to hire 150 to 200 new associates.

CWA has called for “hundreds” of new hires at the hospital, with members saying high turnover, short staffing and insufficient supplies have led to “routinely” long shifts and compromised care.

“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,” Cheryl Darling, an immediate treatment assistant at the hospital, said in an Oct. 1 statement from CWA.