Kaleida Health, unions reach tentative agreement covering 6,300 workers

Kaleida Health and the two unions representing 6,300 of its workers have reached a tentative agreement on a new three-year contract.

The news, announced around 12:15 a.m. Monday, averts a potential hospital strike, given that Kaleida union members voted in mid-September to allow their bargaining committee to authorize walkouts at Kaleida facilities if necessary . But the bargaining committee never issued a 10-day strike notice and was able to reach a tentative deal that will soon be reviewed by union members before a ratification vote is held.

The tentative agreement was reached after several consecutive long days of bargaining, each lasting into the early hours of the morning. Negotiators wrapped up a roughly 17-hour session at 2 a.m. Saturday, followed by a 14-hour day that ended after 1 a.m. Sunday. They returned to the table at 11 a.m. Sunday and were able to reach an agreement Sunday night on staffing — one of the biggest hurdles.

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“The last thing we wanted was a strike, and this week our committee has been working around the clock to avoid that,” said Cory Gambini, president of Communications Workers of America Local 1168. “With 19 bargaining units to cover, it’s been a tough job, but we have won an agreement that will retain talented healthcare workers at Kaleida and alleviate what is currently a devastating staffing shortage.”

The unions said they would not release details of the settlement until members are informed of the deal. Kaleida Chief Administrative Officer Mike Hughes confirmed that a deal had been reached.

Kaleida and the two unions, CWA Local 1168 and 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, had been negotiating since mid-March, with the previous contract expiring July 31 after a two-month extension.

These were the longest talks Caleida had had in recent memory, and the burning questions revolved around personnel and wages.

Given the length of the negotiations and that Kaleida previously said the two sides were $300 million apart on economic proposals, many community members worried that Western New York might have seen its second major labor strike in health care for a year after a nearly six-week stint at Mercy Hospital last fall. If a strike had occurred, it could have cost Kaleida up to $23 million a week in replacement staff, which would have been a crippling economic blow in addition to whatever patient revenue it would have lost due to delayed procedures and patient transfers.

Cornell University researchers documented 180 nationwide strikes involving 78,000 workers in the first half of 2022, up from 102 walkouts involving 26,500 employees in the first six months of last year.

The bargaining battle was between exhausted health care workers and an underperforming health care system, fitting a trend of tough health care negotiations playing out across the country. Last month, for example, 15,000 nurses in Minnesota walked off the job for a three-day strike before returning to the bargaining table. And on the West Bank, more than 2,000 Kaiser Permanente mental health workers have been on strike for nearly eight weeks.

Kaleida, for its part, said it has accumulated a total of more than $200 million in pandemic-related losses since 2020. The health system recently received word that it would receive a $25 million boost in government funding, but that won’t cure its financial problems, and that amount could be wiped out in a week by a strike.

As for the workers, they wanted to see improvements in staffing, wages and working conditions, the kinds of adjustments that would help Kaleida better recruit and retain employees and, in turn, help the health system improve patient care . Those workers in mid-September voted to authorize a strike if a contract could not be reached. They would also take financial risk during a strike, given that strike benefits and state unemployment don’t kick in until the 15th day after the walkout.

The $25 million in state aid could not have come at a better time for Kaleida

State officials no doubt hope the funding will boost WNY’s largest health care system, which has posted more than $200 million in pandemic-related losses since 2020.

The Kaleida negotiations covered about 63% of the health system’s wages. The preliminary agreement covers a variety of titles, including nurses, dietitians, personal care, service and support workers, among many others, at several Kaleida facilities, including Buffalo General Medical Center, Oishei Children’s Hospital, Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, Highpointe in Michigan, DeGraff Medical Park and many clinics.

Last October, workers at Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo walked off the job and went on strike for nearly six weeks. Ultimately, the strike cost the Catholic health system about $89 million: an estimated $37 million in lost revenue from reduced capacity and delayed or transferred procedures, and about $52 million in additional labor costs related to temporary staff.

The Mercy strike also displaced patients in Western New York, putting more pressure on facilities at Caleda, Erie County Medical Center and other health care facilities at a time when Covid-19 cases began to increase as the weather turned colder.

Kaleida, the unions are still negotiating, but what if a strike notice is issued?

The unions have not publicly indicated if and when the 10-day notice will be issued, saying they plan to fully exhaust the bargaining process before taking action. But if that notice is delivered, the possibility of a massive labor strike capable of shaking the health care industry in Western New York will begin to feel very real.

A strike in Caleida could have had a much greater effect, creating the likely possibility that patients would have to be moved out of Western New York to receive care.

Union members will then have to review the agreement before voting on whether to ratify it.

For Kaleida, the health system is in the midst of its annual planning process, when it develops its operating and capital budgets and evaluates its strategic plan. A new collective agreement covering two-thirds of workers no doubt plays a role in this process.

John Harris can be reached at 716-849-3482 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @ByJonHarris.

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