- Some 2,500 nurses, technologists, clerical staff and other service workers at Catholic Health System's Mercy Hospital in Buffalo, New York, plan go on strike Oct. 1 if the union and hospital management are unable to reach a deal on a new contract by that date.
- The current contract expires Sept. 30, and 97% of members represented by the Communications Workers of America have voted in favor of authorizing a strike. They share nearly universal concerns over staffing, threats to patient care, supply shortages, high turnover and low pay they want addressed in the next contract, according to the union.
- The hospital's bargaining team is working to settle a fair contract and avert a strike, though it has a strike contingency plan in place that includes bringing in contract labor, according to a release from the hospital. Mercy has also filed unfair labor practice claims against CWA with the National Labor Relations Board for engaging in bad faith, surface and regressive bargaining, according to the hospital.
Labor unions representing nurses and other healthcare workers in particular are leveraging their experiences during the pandemic to get better contracts, especially as burnout continues exacerbating turnover.
And while unions sometimes authorize a strike without setting a date, workers at Mercy Hospital are ready to strike in less than two weeks if they're unable to nab a new contract with the measures they say are necessary to attract and retain staff.
In a survey conducted among 500 staff members across Catholic Health's Kenmore Mercy, Mercy and St. Joseph's hospitals, 97% of respondents said their hospital is struggling to retain staff. Most cited concerns over quality of care, staffing shortages, low pay and working conditions, according to the union.
"There is not a shortage of nurses — I want to be clear with that — there is a shortage of nurses that are willing to work under these conditions and under these unsafe ratios," Tina Knop, a critical care registered nurse at Mercy Hospital who has worked there for about 10 years said during a Tuesday press conference.
Nurses in the ICU typically care for one or two patients depending on acuity, but throughout the pandemic have been assigned up to four or five patients at a time, Knop said.
In recent weeks six nurses in the ICU at Mercy Hospital put in their two weeks notice, including Knop. "I can no longer do it, I can no longer work under these conditions," she said.
That comes as healthcare workers, following a brief reprieve this spring, are now dealing with renewed surges of COVID-19 patients with the delta variant and a fast approaching winter and flu season.
A month ago, Catholic Health's census of COVID-19 patients was down to one or two per day, but is rising and hit 40 patients across the system as of Thursday, according to a letter 25 elected officials from the Buffalo region wrote to hospital management.
The letter shares concerns the legislators and councilmembers have heard from staff, namely that the hospital's operations haven't recovered from the worst of the pandemic and have consistently stretched workers to their breaking points.
"The result is overwhelming stress and demoralization among the workforce, and workers voting with their feet by quitting as soon as another opportunity is available," the letter says.
Workers also believe there is a crisis of leadership and their concerns aren't being taken seriously, as hundreds of staff positions remain unfilled, according to the elected officials.
The letter notes hospital management's proposal for a new contract wouldn't help attract the staff they need, as meager wage increases would be offset by large increases in healthcare costs.
"Hundreds of new hires are needed to ensure safe staffing levels, leaving the remaining staff exhausted and increasingly concerned over their ability to provide adequate patient care as COVID-19 cases increase in Erie County," the union said in a release.
It is unclear how long the strike would last if the two sides are unable to reach a deal by Oct. 1.