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Hospital Workers Strike in Buffalo Citing Dangerous Understaffing

“Our hospital, and the hospitals throughout the Catholic Health System, are dangerously understaffed. Every day, we are terrified of needless patient deaths in our hospital because we are stretched so thin.” — Mercy Hospital staffers

Buffalo, NY – Nurses, technologists, clerical staff, aides, dietary, and other service workers at Catholic Health System’s Mercy Hospital announced Friday morning the decision to go on strike after the hospital system refused to agree to a fair contract that would address the ongoing staffing crisis and prioritize patient care.

In a letter to the Buffalo community announcing the strike, workers expressed how difficult it was to make this choice, but that Catholic Health had “made it impossible” to provide the level of care and attention patients deserve.

“Our hospital, and the hospitals throughout the Catholic Health System, are dangerously understaffed. Every day, we are terrified of needless patient deaths in our hospital because we are stretched so thin,” workers said in a statement. “We have bargained for months to achieve a contract agreement that will allow us to do our jobs properly, but Catholic Health stubbornly refuses to agree to iron-clad safe staffing levels that will ensure your safety. We have concluded that only a strike will make Catholic Health understand that we must have guaranteed increased staff and improved compensation if we hope to provide the quality of care our community deserves.”

Workers, represented by the Communications Workers of America [CWA] say they are eager to return quickly, but made clear that the only way the strike would end is a “contract that puts patient care first.” They are calling for a fair contract that allows the hospital system to attract and retain workers needed to address what they insist is a dangerous staffing crisis that has jeopardized patient care.

“Patients Sitting Soiled for Hours”

A recent survey of more than 500 registered nurses, technical, service and clerical staff employed by Catholic Health’s Kenmore Mercy, Mercy and St. Joseph’s hospitals reveals how dire the conditions at Catholic Health hospitals have become because of understaffing. Workers expressed nearly universal concerns over understaffing, threats to patient care, supply shortages, high turnover and low pay.

Seventy percent of respondents say they have seen patients be neglected or suffer needlessly because of staffing shortages. Only ten percent say patients are receiving the quality care they need. Ninety-eight percent say their hospital is struggling to retain staff, and the vast majority cite concerns over care quality, staffing shortages, low pay, poor working conditions and Catholic Health’s refusal to settle a fair contract as the reasons for turnover.

Survey respondents also shared harrowing accounts of patients sitting soiled for hours, falling trying to get to the restroom themselves, not getting fed in a timely manner and waiting hours for medication.

“Going on strike was the most difficult decision we have had to make in our careers, but we must do right by our community,” RN Linda Bain said. “It is our life’s mission to give our friends, family and neighbors the care and support they deserve, and walking off the job is now the only option to force Catholic Health to listen. We are incredibly grateful for the outpouring of support from Buffalo residents and call on Catholic Health to put the patients first.”

Contract negotiations with the hospital system continued into the early morning on Friday, but key issues remained unresolved. Bargaining will continue on Friday and throughout the weekend.

“We are on strike because we can’t go on like this,” said Cheryl Darling, Immediate Treatment Assistant. “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. 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.”

CWA national union President Chris Shelton and CWA District 1 Vice President Dennis Trainer both authorized an open-ended strike in Buffalo, and the national union has pledged to support the workers as long as they are on the strike line.

The union represents more than 2,500 nurses, technologists, clerical staff, and other service workers at Catholic Health’s Mercy Hospital of Buffalo, Kenmore Mercy Hospital and Sisters of Charity Hospital-St. Joseph’s Campus, who have been raising concerns about staffing issues for months. Earlier this month, workers in the nursing, cleaning and dietary departments at Catholic Health’s Mercy Hospital of Buffalo voted overwhelmingly with 97 percent support to authorize a strike. Their union contract expired September

Buffalo community expresses support for Catholic Health workers

“These hospital workers have been our heroes during Buffalo’s darkest time, and when they tell us that patient care and safety are being jeopardized, we must listen. Catholic Health must listen,” said Franchelle Hart, executive director of Open Buffalo, a non-profit focused on community justice and equity. “It’s heartbreaking that they have no other option but to strike at this point because their concerns have fallen on the deaf ears of a hospital system that refuses to help them do their jobs.”

Last month, 25 elected officials from the Buffalo region sent a letter to Catholic Health CEO Mark Sullivan, saying “no one in management appears to grasp the magnitude of the crisis workers are experiencing,” and that the “concessions being proposed by management are completely unacceptable to the heroes who got us through last year. We urgently request a meeting with you to discuss this situation and urge you to adopt a new, more conciliatory, and concerned stance with regard to the workers who keep your institutions working every day.”

Residents of Buffalo have been joining with the hospital workers and calling on Catholic Health to address staffing shortages. Over 1,600 people have signed a petition asking Catholic Health to settle a fair contract with the workers and undergo efforts to attract and retain more staff.

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