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Mercy Hospital strike looms, as Kaleida and its unions begin contract talks

Two union leaders sit at a table, while surrounded by a large group of more healthcare workers.
Mike Desmond
Union leaders talked about starting contract talks with Kaleida Health Wednesday.

The next big healthcare industry labor talks started Wednesday. The talks involve somewhere between the 6,300 workers cited by Kaleida Health and nearly 8,000 claimed represented by CWA 1168 and 1199 SEIU.

When CWA 1168 struck Mercy Hospital for six weeks last fall, the issues were staffing, hiring, wages and benefits. The same issues are in these new talks, with the unions saying Kaleida has 900 vacancies.

CWA 1168 President Cory Gambini, a registered nurse, said health care is driving nurses out of the hospitals.

"I've friends that are registered nurses that no longer work in the field and I always ask them, 'What would draw you back?' And they're like, 'Well, definitely good wages and benefits. I'm not coming back and taking care of eight and 10 patients. I'm just not doing it.' So these are long-standing problems that we definitely need to continue to work and address," Gambini said.

Gambini said staff are also worn by increasingly sick patients.

"The acuity level is very high. You just look at what's transpired over the last 10 or 15 years. You've got to be pretty sick. People experience health frailty and the hospital has got to be really, really super sick. As you said, COVID opened up a lot of people's eyes, but we've been dealing with very sick patients for a lot of years," he said.

In a written statement, Kaleida said it has hired more than 400 nurses and is still short, even while using very highly-paid agency nurses. The healthcare system also acknowledged that the region can't afford another strike and care shutdown.

“We know that maintaining and enhancing our workforce is critical to our sustainability and providing the highest quality healthcare to Western New York. We believe that our employees are more than deserving of an increase. Equally important, we are committed to work together to address the serious staffing challenge," the statement said. “Simply put, management desires a new master agreement that meets the needs of our community and provides that which is vital to those who serve the community - our employees."

Kaleida said another work stoppage would be "devastating for all parties." It pledged to negotiate in good faith "to solve issues in a positive and creative manner."

1199 SEIU Area Vice President Jim Scordato said management listened on day one.

"We've had our first session today, in this room. It'll probably be close to 75 participants from the two unions, 1199 SEIU and CWA 1168. It'll be months of long, lengthy process to move forward with this contract," Scordato said.

Scordato said talks will be complicated. The non-economic issues package given to Kaleida ran 247 pages alone. The unions' contracts end May 31.

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.