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Tentative deal reached to end Mercy Hospital strike

A group of strikers with signs in front of Mercy Hospital
Tom Dinki
Red-clad picketing hospital workers have become a familiar scene since the strike began more than a month ago.

There's a tentative deal between the Catholic Health and the Communications Workers of America to end the five-week-long strike at Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo. The deal will also cover various units at other Catholic Health hospitals.

When the strike started around dawn on Oct. 1, most people assumed it wouldn't last long, as both sides proved their points about labor and management. But days turned into weeks and nice weather turned into cold, rainy days of red-clad strikers picketing in front of Mercy's entrance.

Saturday could be the first meetings between union bargainers and some of the 2,000 strikers to discuss the deal. Workers can't vote on the deal until they have been told the details and Local 1133 Executive Board Member Jamie Banks said there may have to be as many as five meetings.

While details aren't clear yet, Banks said there are tight staffing rules.

"There aren't enough people. But we need to be able to retain the people that we have and that's kind of also what our issue was," Banks said. "When you can't retain the staff, due to conditions, therein lies the problem, not only then bringing more people in and giving them a reason to stay."

Catholic Health said the hospitals will "reallocate staffing resources across the care-delivery team to achieve the staffing numbers CWA sought."

“We want to operate our hospitals with staffing models that will best serve patients. Our position of providing high-quality care in a safe environment has not changed,” said Mark Sullivan, President and CEO of Catholic Health in a statement. “Our staffing model is the most progressive approach to address staffing shortages of any hospital in our region. Not only does it comply fully with the New York State Safe Staffing law set to go into effect in January 2022, but it goes far beyond, adding 250 new positions in the face of a nationwide staffing shortage.”

The two sides reached a deal over the weekend on wages and fringes, with the fight over staffing ending bargaining early Sunday, before quietly resuming.

The deal also includes regular pay increases for everyone, along with a $15-an-hour minimum in some essential worker categories to slow turnover, like environmental services, who have been receiving the lowest contract salaries.

“We listened to our associates and their primary concerns were market-competitive wages and increased staffing,” Sullivan said. “These new contracts address both and more. We are ready to welcome our caregivers back to Mercy Hospital.”

Despite the deal, Banks said a return to work might be days away.

"We're still working on it, but, yes, it's going to happen in stages. It'll happen slowly. It's not like everybody's going to be able to come in all at one time," Banks said. "And with people that have left, there are actually new people that are coming in. It's going to be a process to get everyone in and probably a process to open all of the units."

“Now, as we come back together as one family, we have our own healing to do,” Sullivan said.

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.