Buffalo, N.Y. (WBEN) - Wednesday marked the opening day of negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement between the union workers at Kaleida Health and the healthcare network.
Committee members with the Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 1168 and 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East came to the bargaining table with officials of Kaleida Health to present an actionable set of proposals to address a number of different issues, including safe staffing levels, and guaranteed dignity and respect on the job. Members are also seeking greater job security and a fair wage increase to reflect their commitment and dedication to providing healthcare for the local community, especially given the past two years with the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We will start off with many, many days as we move forward of bargaining," said Vice President of 1199SEIU, Jim Scordato on Wednesday. "We've had our first session today, again, in this room. It's probably been close to 75 participants from the two unions, SEIU1199 and CWA 1168. It'll be months of a long, lengthy process to move forward with this contract."
"This month marks two years since the first case of COVID was officially confirmed in New York State. Since then, we, the healthcare workers at Kaleida, have sacrificed our own health and well-being to care for patients while battling against wave-after-wave of COVID," added President of CWA Local 1168, Cori Gambini on Wednesday. "We showed up and fought our hardest to save lives. We showed up even though we were terrified of bringing a deadly virus back to or home and to our families. We show it up even with limited PPE and re-using N95 masks. We showed up even when we felt we had no more to give. Even though the last two years took many of us past the point of exhaustion and burnout, we have remained committed to our jobs, providing quality care and ensuring the health and safety of our communities. And we've done all this amidst some of the worst staffing shortages our healthcare system has ever seen. We are the essential frontline workers that have kept the hospital system running in the face of unimaginable challenges."
Both union groups believe that as the largest private employer and hospital system in Western New York, Kaleida must offer a quality contract for its workers in order to attract talented staff and provide the exceptional care patients deserve.
"A lot of the staff have felt that the working conditions have gone downhill over the last few years, and again, it's not just COVID. Can't blame COVID for everything," Scordato said. "Being moved around to different areas of the hospital, being floated, working short. There's a lot of staff that have have left the field. I think we want to do in this round of bargaining is, again, try to create a partnership, if we can, with Kaleida. ... How do we change the thought of where we're getting staff? I think the groups have to work together, we have to figure out a way and how we get into the high schools. So there's a lot of issues that we will be talking about and how we improve the next generation."
The current contract between Kaleida Health and its union workers expires on Tuesday, May 31. Negotiations will represent a variety of Kaleida Health workers, ranging from nurses, physical and occupational therapists, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, professionals, laboratory, clerical workers, service and maintenance and dietary workers at locations including Buffalo General Medical Center, Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, Oishei Children’s Hospital, HighPointe on Michigan and DeGraff Medical Park.
"Today was the culmination of months of work by our bargaining committee, who is standing here with us today," Gambini said. "We presented Kaleida Health with a comprehensive set of non-economic proposals that address many of the concerns expressed by our members. Both units surveyed our members and spent a lot of time meeting with our members over the last several months, and this all took place late summer and last fall. We clearly understand their priorities in this set of negotiations. Our members have spoken, and their priorities are very clear to us."
While negotiations are expected to last well past the expiration date of the current contract, the union members all felt that the opening day of negotiations were very positive. They also felt the Kaleida Health officials took the time to listen to their concerns, and take them into consideration as this process moves along.
“We are committed to negotiating in good faith and reaching an agreement on a contract that rewards our workforce, helps preserve jobs, improves our healthcare services and strengthens Kaleida Health for the long term," said Kaleida Health in a statement on Wednesday. “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. 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. We hope that both sides will work together to solve issues in a positive and creative manner. And we believe that our vital health care services that the community relies on should not be interrupted by any form of work stoppage. That hurts our workforce, the organization and most importantly, it will harm our patients."
At this point, both sides will continue to talk every Wednesday and Thursday, and the schedule will continue to change as negotiations get closer-and-closer to a resolution.
You can listen to the entirety of Wednesday's press conference below: