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Strike at Mercy Hospital enters 4th week

A group of Communications Workers of America workers
Mike Desmond
CWA chief bargainer Debra Hayes (second from left) addresses the media Sunday outside Mercy Hospital.

It's not really clear if the strike at Mercy Hospital is closer to resolution, but the words are getting harsher.

With bargaining going on almost every day, the strike is in its fourth week. Picketers marched outside the hospital Sunday and union officials said the same issues that led to the strike continue to be the issues, particularly staffing, along with wages and benefits and health insurance costs.

Catholic Health said 50 staffers have quit since the strike started, a dozen of them ICU nurses. The union said around 300 had already left in the last three years and replacements are scarce.

Union bargaining committee member Maureen Kryszak said Mercy is just a bad place to work because of bad management.

"It's a revolving door in in HR. If you express your concerns, your fears, your frustration, automatically you are considered insubordinate to the management and you are taken right upstairs," Kryszak said. "The members fear for their safety that way. They fear they are going to be taken to HR. They fear they're going to lose their jobs for expressing concerns over the unsafe conditions, the unsanitary conditions. It's just a horrible, horrible atmosphere."

Communications Workers of America chief bargainer Debora Hayes blasted Catholic Health for saying it made the best offer and it should have been put up for a vote before the strike.

"They came in and put, supposedly, this wonderful package on the table and we're not letting it get back to our members," Hayes said. "The package they put the table the night before we went on strike absolutely would not have been ratified. There is no way it would have satisfied the concerns that our members wanted us to address."

Respiratory therapist Melissa Piechowicz said it's been difficult, with five kids under age 11.

"It's pretty rough. It is. Fortunately, I come from a two-person household, income household. Not everybody has that," she said. "But anybody who you talk to can tell you how difficult this working here, or anywhere, as a matter of fact. But specifically, working here through the pandemic was terrible. The kids didn't have school. I worked my 40 hours a week at night and I went home and I was my kids' teacher."

The strikers are now getting $300 a week from the union strike fund and are applying for unemployment.

The union is meeting with its lawyers Monday about the company bringing in staffers to replace the strikers and a large security force patrolling the hospital. It's costing the hospital system millions of dollars and the contract for the replacements has been extended.

Catholic Health said it had to extend its replacement contract to continue caring for patients, including 100 inpatients and 100 emergency room patients at Mercy each day.

"We would have preferred to invest our limited resources in our people, our hospitals and our community,” said hospital spokesperson JoAnn Cavanaugh.

Cavanaugh said in a statement that the parties have made progress on contract language about pharmacy benefits, prescription co-pays and overtime pay.

"But four weeks into its strike, the union still has no sense of urgency to reach an agreement," she said. "We have been waiting for more than a week for CWA to respond to key proposals to end this strike, while the union has spent significant time over the last few days discussing an inconsequential proposal that would allow associates to wear red uniforms on Thursdays. We are eager to come to an agreement and begin the healing process that will be essential for everyone to move forward together when CWA’s strike is over."

WBFO's Marian Hetherly contributed to this story.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.