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Kaleida Health workers vote to strike if contract can’t be reached

Kaleida Health workers picket
Emyle Watkins
Kaleida Health workers, represented by Communications Workers of America Local 1168 and 1199 SEIU United Health Care Workers East, picket near Buffalo General Medical Center and Oishei's Children's Hospital Aug. 18, 2022.

Workers at Kaleida Health can now choose to strike if a contract cannot be reached.

Communications Workers of America Local 1168 and 1199 SEIU United HealthCare Workers East, which represent more than 6,300 workers within the Kaleida system, announced late Thursday evening that 96% of participating workers voted in favor of authorizing a strike.

However, that doesn’t mean a strike will happen anytime soon, or at all. The unions note that the vote simply grants the bargaining committee the option to call a strike. If that happens, state law requires the unions to give Kaleida a 10-day notice.

“A strike is the last thing we want,” said CWA Local 1168 President Cori Gambini. “No one wants to walk off the job, but we are considering all of our options because we are seeing a decline in quality of care that must be reversed.”

In a statement, Kaleida Health officials said they are eager to get back to the bargaining table Friday, adding that voting prevented the two sides from bargaining the last three days.

“As we have said all along, we do not want a strike, it will be devastating and dangerous for this community,” the statement read.

If Kaleida workers do strike, it would be the second hospital strike in Western New York within the last year. Catholic Health workers represented by CWA Local 1168 went on strike at Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo last October for 35 days.

It resulted in a contract that included a 6.3% wage increase for registered nurses, a minimum starting rate of $15-an-hour for all positions, and established the first staffing ratios to be written into a union contract outside of California.

Both sides seem to agree that they must match or surpass the Catholic Health contract. Kaleida reiterated that point Thursday, saying they want to once again be the “market leader in wages.”

However, the health system also says that will be costly. The latest proposal from the union is estimated to cost over a half-billion dollars. At the same time, the health system says it’s suffered over $200 million in losses since 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Simply put, those numbers jeopardize the future viability of Kaleida Health,” the statement read.

But 1199 Vice President for WNY Hospital Jim Scordato said that financial losses cannot “continue to dictate the quality of care within its hospitals and the quality of life for its workforce.” The unions also note that Kaleida is on track to spend nearly $100 million on travel nurses and agency workers this year.

CWA and 1199 say they are seeking a contract that will enable Kaleida to recruit and retain more union staff, as well as meet new staffing ratios required by state law. Under New York’s safe staffing law, Kaleida has pledged to hire 436 new full-time equivalent positions, the unions said.

However, Kaleida already has more than 800 vacancies, so the unions argue that the health system will actually have to hire more than 1,200 positions.

The two sides have been bargaining since March. Their last contract expired at the end of July after two months of extensions.

In the event of a strike, Kaleida officials say they have contingency plans in place. That includes triaging surgeries and ambulance transportation, and even transferring patients outside of Western New York.

“Again, our hope is that those measures will prove unnecessary, but it is critical that we have contingencies in place for the sake of our patients,” Kaleida said. “Patient access and care will remain the priority, no matter the duration or location of a possible work stoppage.”

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.
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