With talks ramping up, both Kaleida and workers agree that Catholic Health contract is the goal
Kaleida Health and approximately 6,300 workers represented by CWA Local 1168 and 1199 SEIU announced last week that they will not extend their previous contract, and will increase bargaining to five days a week in order to get a new one.
The goal, according to 1199 SEIU vice president for Western New York hospitals Jim Scordato, is simple.
“We always try to negotiate the contract that we're doing to make that the best contract in the market,” he said.
The best contract in the Western New York market right now is the one ratified between CWA and Catholic Health System last year. That deal, which came after a 35-day strike at Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo, included a 6.3% wage increase for registered nurses, and at least a $15 an hour starting rate for all positions.
Perhaps more crucially, it created staffing ratios, the first to be written into a union contract outside of California. The ratios, meant to meet the demands of New York’s hospital safe staffing law effective Jan. 1, included a critical care RN-to-patient ratio of 1-to-2, or even 1-to-1, depending on acuity.
Kaleida now needs to offer those same wages and staffing ratios to be competitive amid a statewide nursing shortage that dates back to even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the unions argue. A 2019 study in the American Journal of Medical Quality found the state is likely to have a shortage of nearly 40,000 RNs by 2030.
“All hospital systems are competing for the same pool of people, trying to steal from each other,” said CWA Local President Cori Gambini. “Get the new graduates, get people to move back to Buffalo, people that maybe are not practicing at the bedside to come back to the bedside.”
Altogether, the unions are pushing Kaleida to hire about 1,200 more workers. That includes the health system’s current 800 vacancies, as well as additional 436 full-time equivalents that the unions say the hospital will have to hire in order to comply with the state’s staffing law.
But, Gambini said, that won’t happen unless workers are well compensated and know their patient loads will be manageable.
“They want extra people and they want the recognition for doing that hard work,” she said.
Kaledia is also aiming to reach Catholic Health’s standard. Chief Administrative Officer Michael Hughes said in a statement that Kaleida wants to once again be the market leader, and that means matching or beating the Catholic Health contract.
“It’s as simple as that,” the statement read.
But Hughes adds that the cost of doing that will be at least twice of what Kaleida spent on its last contract in 2019. Plus, Hughes told The Buffalo News the health system had a $26 million loss last year.
Scordato said that’s why 1199 SEIU and CWA are advocating to Albany for more funding to go to upstate hospitals.
“A lot of these employers want to do the right thing, they want to be competitive, they want to be on top of the market,” he said, “but if the funding is not there, they're going to struggle.”
Kaleida and the unions have been negotiating since March. Their previous contract expired May 31 and had been extended 30 days twice before.
Union leaders say the decision to not extend the contract another month was a strategic choice, but Gambini said it shouldn’t be seen as a “red flag.”
“We really heard from our members that they didn't want to sign another extension. I think that they want a good contract to be brought back for them to vote on,” she said. “And we just want to leave all our options open.”
Still, CWA-repped Catholic Health workers had to strike to get their contract. So are CWA and 1199 SEIU willing to go on strike to get the same contract at Kaleida?
“If we have to, we will,” Gambini said. “We don't want to. Our goal is to reach an agreement. It's up to our members. I mean, we don't pull the trigger. It's up to our members if that's going to happen.”