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SEIU Poised to Hit the Picket Line In Rochester as Contract Talks Drag On

New York, NY – Workers at Strong Memorial Hospital and University of Rochester Campus are headed for the picket line in less than 10 days if they don’t get a contract. After that, 1199SEIU Regional Vice-President Tracey Harrison says, “Our next steps would be looking at a potential strike.”

Campus and hospital workers —totaling some 1,800 in all — saw their contract expire three years ago, long before the Covid pandemic reached the U.S. in January 2020. They’ve kept working under weekly contract extensions ever since, while a federal mediator attempted help get a new agreement.
But that all came to an end on Friday, Oct. 22, when 1199SEIU made the decision not to back anymore extensions.

The two parties are still at the bargaining table at the time of this writing. 

“Our main intent is not to take people out on an informational picket — it’s to get a contract,” Harrison told LaborPress. “We would like to believe though these discussions that the employer will be able to come back and meet our demands.”

Workers at Strong Memorial Hospital and University of Rochester Campus doing a myriad of vital jobs across a wide variety of departments, insist that they are woefully underpaid and understaffed. 

Natalie Johnson, 58, works as a patient unit secretary. She has been on the job for 40 years. Her last raise was three years ago. The bump in pay raised her salary to what it is today — $18 an hour. 

“If we don’t get a contract by November 3, we are putting [Strong Memorial/University of Rochester Campus] on notice that we will be out there and walking [the picket line],” Johnson told LaborPress.

Workers won’t be out there alone. According to the union, a contingent of community allies and elected officials will be there alongside workers like Johnson who simply can no longer afford to make ends meet. 

“We have a high concentration of poverty in Rochester,” Harrison says. “We cannot further sit back and watch this happen. When we look at our members, especially individuals like Natalie who have been employed here for 40 years, it’s not as though people are not working or they don’t want to work. It’s just that they’re not making enough money.”

That lack of sufficient compensation — the same factors reflected in the so-called “U.S. labor shortage” and strikes and job actions taking place during #Striketober — have made it increasingly difficult for Strong Memorial Hospital and University of Rochester Campus administrators to both attract and retain a sufficient number of staffers.  

“It’s very apparent that the staffing is just not there — not enough to meet the demand,” Harrison says. “There’s no one particular department more staffed than another. They’re all experiencing some form of staffing crisis.”

Covid burnout has only worsened the crunch for all involved. 

“We have folks who are barely in front of minimum wage coming in the door,” Harrison says. “Looking at where we’re at right now with Covid, that’s going to do very little to encourage people to come through those doors and — most importantly — stay inside those doors. Recruitment and retainment are very important for everyone. The only way they’re going to fix that is putting more money into people’s pockets.”

The Exploding Costs of Private Health Insurance Rears Its Ugly Head Again

As dire as the wage and staffing issues are — healthcare appears to be the major impediment to reaching an equitable agreement. 

“[Healthcare] is huge,” Johnson says. “It plays a big part in our contract negotiations. I’m getting older now and healthcare is very important to me. I use it a lot. I do have underlying medical conditions. I need my healthcare benefits.”

Union members, including Johnson, are covered by the National Benefits Fund [NBF]. Over the years, SEIU has poured an enormous amount of energy and creativity into keeping costly copays down. Members do not now want to see their healthcare package diluted — the way so many other workers throughout the country have seen their healthcare plans deteriorate. 

“[Administrators have] expressed their concerns about the rising costs of health insurance,” Harrison says. “While we do recognize that, that’s just the nature of health insurance. One thing they have said is they’ve noticed there has been an increase in the rate — they are correct — and that’s fine. But for their workers, this is something that [Strong Memorial Hospital and University of Rochester] should be willing to pay.

LaborPress has reached out to Strong Memorial Hospital and University of Rochester Campus for comment, but has not yet gotten a response.

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