BUFFALO, N.Y.—New York State Attorney General Letitia James last week stepped into the strike over understaffing at Buffalo’s Mercy Hospital, issuing a cease-and-desist order to the company the Catholic Health hospital chain hired to bring in strikebreakers and provide security.
Huffmaster, the Michigan-based company that advertises itself as the nation’s leading provider of “rapid strike staffing” and a “single-source strike services agency,” is not licensed to operate as either an employment agency or a security service in New York State, the attorney general’s Labor Bureau said in an Oct. 12 letter to company president Gregory Johnson. And it can’t legally hold licenses to provide both services, a spokesperson for James’ office told LaborPress.
“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 letter declared.
“Huffmaster Companies is in contact with the Attorney General’s office to address their questions,” Catholic Health public-relations director JoAnn Cavanaugh responded. She did not address whether the company was legally licensed, but said that all “registered nurses and other temporary replacement workers” caring for patients at Mercy Hospital during the strike “are properly credentialed to work in New York State.”
“Sadly, this is all too typical of Catholic Health’s conduct throughout this entire time period,” Communications Workers of America area director Debora Hayes said in a statement. “Instead of wasting millions of dollars on this illegal temporary staffing agency, Catholic Health should invest in its own long-term employees, by negotiating a fair agreement that provides adequate wages to attract and retain staff, and that guarantees adequate levels of care in the hospital.”
Staffing, wages main issues
Contract talks have continued since about 2,000 nurses and other staff at Mercy Hospital, members of CWA Local 1133, walked out on Oct. 1. “Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re there yet,” Hayes told a press conference outside the hospital on Oct. 12.
The union wants an “ironclad commitment to end the horrid working conditions and the staffing problems our members are facing,” she said, as well as pay increases, especially for the lower-paid workers on staff. Food and environmental-services workers now start at $13.45 an hour and top out at $17, according to the CWA.
Overall, said Hayes, there are more than 30 unresolved issues. Catholic Health dropped some concessions it was demanding, she said, but still wants to increase deductibles in workers’ health-care coverage.
The contract would also cover staff represented by Local 1133 and CWA Local 1168 at two other hospitals, Kenmore Mercy and Sisters of Charity Hospital’s St. Joseph campus.
Catholic Health says that its most recent proposal, publicly released on Oct. 11, would both increase wages and outline “a commitment to recruit and retain more than 250 new associates to address staffing.”
Under it, the hospital chain said, all workers covered would make at least $15 an hour, with some getting raises of up to 25% in the first year. Registered nurses would get an average raise of 4.3% in the first year. And staffing levels would be increased “to align with agreed-upon ratios,” with ratios based on 10% above the average daily patient census.
Hayes called those proposals “misleading.” Their language, she said Oct. 12, has “wiggle room” about staffing levels. “The language we are looking for is ironclad nurse-to-patient or provider-to-patient ratios.”
In 2016, says Jamie Banks, a CT (computed tomography scans) technologist who is cochair of Local 1133’s picketing committee, Catholic Health agreed to hire 200 new staff, but “they only held to it for a year.” Staffing ratios are now worse than they were in 2016, she told LaborPress Oct. 13.
Therefore, she explains, the union wants a definite number that will apply to the whole 400-bed hospital, not a vague percentage.
On pay, Banks says, the most recent management proposal would bring all workers up to at least $15 — but 52% of the roughly 1,100 nurses would be “red-circled,” given a percentage of their salary as a lump sum, but with their base pay frozen, so the extra money wouldn’t be compounded in future pay increases.
The hospital did the same thing in 2012, she adds, which is one reason why Catholic Health nurses make less than those at other hospitals in the Buffalo area — about $2 per hour less, Hayes said.
Huffmaster is paying strikebreakers substantially more. Its listings for “work during a labor dispute at an Acute Care facility in western New York State scheduled to start October 1” offer $24 an hour for cooks and housekeepers and $110 to $150 for nurses. It also pays for transportation, hotel rooms, and a per diem for meals and other expenses. And as it is a temporary staffing agency, Catholic Health is paying it at an even higher rate.
Attorney General James said in a statement Oct. 13 that her office had received complaints that Huffmaster guards were “infringing upon the rights of picketers to protest.” A spokesperson said the allegations included attempting to provoke violence, such as by pushing and shoving.
Jamie Banks describes the guards’ conduct as like the petty aggressions of a bully trying to pick a fight, such as making gestures at women and elbowing and pushing people.
“They are not supposed to cross the line into our area,” she says, but they have walked in between pickets and lined up behind them, surrounding the strikers on both sides.
In another incident, she says, when picketers stood in front of a bus taking strikebreakers back to their hotel at the end of their shift, Huffmaster guards told the driver to keep going forward, while police in back told him to stop. There were too many picketers for the bus to move, so the guards began elbowing them out of the way, and then the police dispersed both sides.
Some of the company’s guards are not licensed in New York, Banks says. She and other strikers saw some putting tape over their Huffmaster patches and covering them with patches from a Rochester security company. The Buffalo strikers, she adds, have recognized some of them from video posted online of Huffmaster guards roughing up picketers and protesters during the strike at the Nabisco bakery in Portland, Oregon, last month.
A member of Teamsters Local 162 in Portland is suing Huffmaster in federal court, charging that the company’s guards assaulted him while he was picketing in support of the Nabisco strikers, the Willamette Week reported.
“I assume Catholic Health knew this is who they brought in, and they spend millions of dollars to intimidate us,” Banks says. “And the fact that it’s illegal is so disheartening, especially considering that we’re health-care workers. We care for people.”
Catholic Health has made its own allegations. On Oct. 3, JoAnn Cavanaugh issued a statement that the company’s negotiating team would meet with the CWA “only virtually” until the union “demonstrated an ability to control its followers on the picket line.”
As evidence, the statement linked to a union-backed Facebook page, where someone posting as “Sarah StrikeNurse” complained about picketers shouting insults at strikebreakers and giving them the finger when their van pulled up at the hospital in the morning, with one yelling “I hope you all die in there.”
She claimed that by crossing the picket line to provide patient care, she was actually enabling the strike to continue.
“I see why you are striking within one shift and I support you to no end,” she wrote. “I see the patient loads, the substandard equipment purchased to cut costs; the management shenanigans continue with us too.”
“You admit you see the substandard conditions and our reasons for striking after one shift, yet show up and support the continuing of that substandard care,” came one response. “And while I don’t want you or your scab workers to die, I don’t for a second think you are here for anything less than $150/hr.”