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CWA workers on strike at Mercy Hospital

The entrance to the Emergency Department at Mercy Hospital in Buffalo.
Tom Dinki
Dozens of workers picket outside Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo in the late afternoon of Oct. 1, 2021. Members of CWA went on strike earlier that morning.

CWA workers went on strike at Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo as of 6 a.m. Friday. The union representing approximately 2,200 registered nurses and service, technical and clerical associates walked out of overnight negotiations on an 11th-hour bargaining package presented by Catholic Health.

"I think the community stands behind us, beside us, too," said Jackie Ettipio, a registered nurse and President of CWA Local 1133. "The community is aware because they come in and see what is happening. We've always stood for the community. Nobody wants to leave the patient at the bedside. They know we're doing it because we have to stop what's going on right now."

The union also issued "An Open Letter to the Community" early Wednesday.

"We have made the extremely difficult decision to go on strike because Catholic Health has made it impossible for us to provide this care and attention," the letter said.

"Catholic Health watched as we suffered through the trauma and burnout of this [pandemic] and as too many of us became sick and succumbed to the virus. Scores of our colleagues left in frustration or because they found better wages and working conditions at other hospitals," the letter continued. "Catholic Health can’t retain staff because our wages and benefits aren’t competitive in the region. But instead of agreeing to a fair contract that will attract and retain desperately needed new staff, Catholic Health wants to cut our health benefits, keep our wages stagnant, and force us to continue working in dangerously understaffed conditions. It is our duty and ethical obligation to stand up for our patients."

Members of CWA hold "Safe Staffing Saves Lives" sign at the picket line at Mercy Hospital Oct. 1, 2021.
Tom Dinki
Members of CWA hold "Safe Staffing Saves Lives" sign at the picket line at Mercy Hospital Oct. 1, 2021.

In a 6:30 a.m. press conference Friday at 565 Abbott Rd., CHS CEO Mark Sullivan said the two sides were "very close" to an agreement overnight. Behind him walked dozens of staff with picket signs.

"Catholic Health stepped forward and put together a proposal where we would add 10% more workforce over and above the average daily census and we would also add between 150 and 230 new associates," Sullivan said. "And on top of that, we were committed to adding $20 million to the staffing plans."

That is part of what CHS said is a $31 million economic package to CWA to cover staff at Mercy, Kenmore Mercy and St. Joseph Campus. The package also includes an average 4.4% wage increase for nurses and an 8.4% increase for associates. Most health insurance contributions and pension benefits would remain unchanged.

In preparation for a strike, Catholic Health on Wednesday suspended inpatient elective surgeries and diverting ambulances from Mercy Hospital and the Mercy Ambulatory Care Center. The Emergency Department remained open for emergencies, walk-ins and situations where the patient is unstable and Mercy is the closest facility available or the patient specifically requests the facility.

Also suspended were labor and delivery services, but Catholic Health is continuing these services at Sisters of Charity Hospital’s Main Street Campus in Buffalo and Mt. St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston.

The hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) remains open to care for babies currently in the unit and mothers who have already delivered will continue to receive care for the duration of their hospital stay.

Early Friday Sullivan said "this is a very fluid situation" and that officials will adjust their staffing plan now that a strike has begun.

"We invite the union back to the bargaining table," he said. "That's our goal. To get this resolved and move on."

WBFO's Jay Moran contributed to this story.