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Buffalo Hospital Cuts Strikers’ Health Insurance After Talks Break Down 

Buffalo, NY – A possible hospital strike in Rochester was averted Oct. 29 when two SEIU unions reached a tentative contract deal, but the month-old walkout at Mercy Hospital of Buffalo was intensified Oct. 31, when management cut off health-insurance coverage for the 2,200 strikers after talks broke down early that morning.

The two sides had reached an “agreement in principle” on pay as bargaining sessions over the weekend went on until well after midnight, Communications Workers of America area director Debora Hayes said at a press conference outside the hospital Nov. 1, but they could not agree on staffing. 

The union, CWA Local 1133, wants a ratio of not more than four patients per nurse, she said, while Catholic Health, which owns Mercy and two smaller Buffalo-area hospitals covered by the same contract, would not come below a one-to-five ratio.

“If they come to one-to-four, this is over,” Hayes said. “That’s literally how close we were.”

She said Local 1133 had given Catholic Health negotiators a memorandum of understanding setting up procedures for when staffing limits are exceeded, drafted its final bargaining agreement to arrange going back to work, and waited almost three hours — until about 6 a.m., when “they said no.”

“We went from high-fiving each other to leaving in tears,” said Cheryl Darling, an immediate treatment assistant and member of Local 1133’s bargaining committee.”

Management agreed the two sides had been close to a deal, but blamed the union for its failure. Catholic Health said in a statement Oct. 31 that the key sticking point holding up an agreement was “staffing for a few specific units.” 

“Rather than negotiate on Sunday, CWA announced it wanted to ‘evaluate where we are at,’” it added. “Catholic Health hospitals are standing firm on their fair, market-competitive offer that includes staffing language, which addresses associates’ priorities as identified by CWA.”

Later in the day, Catholic Health said, it began sending strikers notices that it “would discontinue payment and administration of their health benefit coverage.” It said it had given the union a deadline of Oct. 30 for the cutoff, but had held off “as a show of good faith” that an agreement would be reached.

CWA District 1 Vice President Dennis Trainor called the termination of health benefits “a blatant attempt to intimidate the workers into ending their strike before a fair agreement is reached.” 

The CWA’s national Members Relief Fund has $425 million in it, he added, and will “ensure that no striker faces any financial hardship for a medical or dental emergency of any kind, and that medical care for chronic conditions will be continued.” The CWA has also increased its weekly benefits for strikers to $400, and they are eligible for New York State unemployment benefits.

The union, Hayes said, is open to relieving the stress on registered nurses by bringing licensed practical nurses into acute-care units and increasing the number of nurses’ aides and immediate treatment assistants. But if it accepted management’s insistence on a one-to-five ratio of nurses to patients, she said, then “if they start to slip, you go to one-to-six, to one-to-seven, to one-to-eight.”

“The number-one reason we walked is our patients. The last piece of this is our patients,” said medical-surgical RN Corinne Webb.

No further talks have been scheduled yet, Hayes said.

Meanwhile in Rochester, 1,800 service workers at Strong Memorial Hospital and the University of Rochester campus had been preparing for a strike after going three years without a raise. Their last contract expired in 2018, but had been extended on a week-to-week basis since then. The workers, who included food and building service workers, drivers, library attendants, medical assistants, and patient-care technicians, voted in October to reject any more extensions. 

 On Oct. 22, their two unions, 1199SEIU at the hospital and SEIU Local 200United at the university, set a 10-day strike deadline. General low pay and health benefits were also issues. 

A ratification vote on the proposed contract is scheduled for Nov. 5. The unions said they would not make details public until after then, but released a statement in which Shirley Hobbs, a patient unit secretary at Strong Memorial, called it “the best agreement we’ve achieved in my 42 years of working here.” 

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