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Catholic Health cuts health insurance for striking workers

A group of striking workers picketing
Mike Desmond

Things have heated up even further, as the strike at Buffalo's Mercy Hospital lingers into its second month. Catholic Health is cutting off health insurance for the strikers, in a move the union said is an attempt to intimidate workers into a bad contract.

Talks broke down early Sunday morning and in the afternoon, Catholic Health put out a statement about the health insurance stopping.

"We began sending notices today. Catholic Health will resume payment and administration upon ratification of the tentative agreement by the membership," said the health system.

Catholic Health said a key sticking point holding up an agreement for all associates at Kenmore Mercy, Mercy and St. Joseph hospitals "remained staffing for a few specific units."

Catholic Health CEO Mark Sullivan said last week that might happen if the strike continued.

Communications Workers of America District 1 Vice President Dennis Trainor said strike pay for workers will rise from $300 a week to $400, along with unemployment pay.

In his statement, Trainor said the parent union's strike fund has $425 million in it. He said the fund will ensure emergency health care and continue care for chronic conditions.

Catholic Health said it has made good offers on wages, benefits and on staffing in Mercy units. The union has focused on the staffing issue, with strikers saying there are so few workers that it's not safe for staff or patients.

"The reality is that Catholic Health is trying to go backward on staffing, and its proposal would create ratios in medical-surgical units that are worse than the current management-created staffing grids," said Trainor. "We are ready to put this strike behind us and get back to work, and as soon as Catholic Health agrees to staffing ratios that are safe for staff and patients, we can do that.”

Catholic Health may be dealing with financial issues, since it's paying millions of dollars for replacement workers inside the hospital and far fewer inpatients or patients using the Emergency Department than in more normal times.

The talks cover around 2,000 strikers at Mercy and hundreds more in other Catholic Health facilities.

WBFO's Marian Hetherly contributed tot his 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.