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Buffalo Nurses Vote to Strike Over Chronic Short Staffing

BUFFALO, N.Y.—Saying that they are at a “breaking point,” nurses and other staff at Catholic Health’s Mercy Hospital announced Sept. 20, that they will go on strike Oct. 1, if they can’t reach a contract agreement with the Buffalo-area network.

“We just can’t continue like this,” nurse Jackie Ettipio, president of Communications Workers of America Local 1133, told an online press conference Sept. 21. She said staff at the hospital in south Buffalo has been coping with chronic understaffing and shortages of basic equipment such as urinals, bedsheets, thermometers, washcloths, and blood tubes.

“The negotiations are almost like they can’t hear what we’re saying,” she added.

Local 1133, which represents nurses, technologists, cleaners, and dietary staff at Mercy, said 97% of members voting last week had supported the strike authorization. The CWA also represents nurses and other workers at two other Catholic Health hospitals, Kenmore Mercy Hospital and Sisters of Charity Hospital-St. Joseph’s Campus, but those have no-strike agreements, the union said.

“Catholic Health has made it impossible for us to give our patients the care they deserve,” said CWA upstate area director Debora Hayes. “Striking at a health-care facility is something you never want to do, but we are at a breaking point.”

Management’s current contract offer, she added, contains “devastating” increases in what workers pay for health care, and “would only deepen the staffing crisis.” 

“Over the last 18 months, we believe no health system in New York State has done more to protect the health and safety of its workforce,” Catholic Health public-relations director JoAnn Cavanaugh responded in a statement. “We scoured the nation and beyond to make sure we had ample PPE for associates, paid hazard pay longer than any other local health system, and launched a robust resiliency program to support our team.” The network, she added, has hired nearly 1,200 workers, including 230 registered nurses, since Jan. 1.

Catholic Health management said that many hospitals are having problems with staffing and supply shortages, and that it and the CWA are “nearly $100 million apart.” 

“The union’s inflammatory rhetoric around ongoing negotiations with our hospitals and the threat of a strike with no clear end date is contributing unnecessarily to the stress of 2,000 Mercy Hospital associates,” Cavanaugh added.

Critical-care nurse Tina Knop said she was one of six nurses on her unit who had quit in the past six weeks.

“I was a proud nurse for South Buffalo Mercy, and I can no longer use those words,” she said, trying to keep from crying. “Nurses and aides are burned out.”

Normally, she said, critical-care nurses take care of only one or two patients at a time, depending on the severity of their ailments. But she often had three, and since the pandemic, sometimes four or five, although with a helper.

With that workload, “you cannot attend to the patients’ needs,” she continued. She’s seen patients “left in their own urine and feces, asking for help,” getting bedsores, falling and pulling their ventilator tubes out.

All this is “100% avoidable,” she said. “There is not a shortage of nurses. There is a shortage of nurses willing to work under these conditions.”

In a CWA survey of about 500 workers at the three hospitals, most of them at Mercy and about two-thirds nurses, more than 70% reported that they had seen patients be neglected or suffer needlessly because of staffing shortages, that they did not have adequate supplies or equipment, and that their workload was not manageable.

Ettipio, asked why health-care workers would even think about going on strike during a pandemic, said continuing to work under those conditions would be “like giving your son who’s a drug addict money day after day, and he keeps getting worse.”

For example, she said, there are no cleaners on the night shift to clean the beds of patients who died of Covid-19. Cleaners are paid $13.50 and hour, $1 above the minimum wage for upstate.

“Catholic Health still has 10 days to change this,” she stated.

Management said the CWA “has the option to withdraw its 10-day notice” before Oct. 1.

The union’s contract with the three hospitals expired 15 months ago, but the locals agreed to extend it and accept an 0.5% pay increase in order to keep them running during the pandemic, said Local 1168 President Cori Gambini, a nurse at St. Joseph’s.

Hayes said management has told the union that if there is a strike, it will keep workers out for seven days even if an agreement is reached before then, because temporary staff hired as strikebreakers get seven-day contracts.

Immediate treatment assistant Cheryl Darling said she had once been floated to an intensive-care unit where she had to take care of 18 patients. Another time, she worked on a unit with four uninfected patients and four with Covid. Before going into the isolation room with the Covid patients, she said, she had to put on a new mask and gown — but on the cart for it, clean protective equipment was mixed with gear discarded by staff after they left the room, and there was no way to tell which was clean.

“We don’t want to strike. We want to take care of our patients,” she said. “But at this point, we have no alternative. Catholic Health is not listening to us.”

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