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Replacement labor being lined up for Mercy Hospital in the event of a strike

Catholic Health has hired an outside agency to recruit nurses, technicians, and other staff to fill potential vacancies.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Catholic Health has taken steps to hire replacement workers to fill over 2,000 jobs at Mercy Hospital if they and the union representing staff fail to reach an agreement by an Oct. 1 strike deadline.

To keep the hospital running, Catholic Health said Friday it had wired several million dollars to a hiring agency.  A spokesperson later confirmed that agency was Huffmaster, a company that specializes in supplying staff to healthcare providers during strikes.

“We would have preferred to invest that money in our people, equipment, and facilities," said Catholic Health Spokesperson JoAnn Cavanaugh.

"Regrettably, the union has created a situation where we must spend considerable resources to be prepared to continue providing safe, high-quality care to our patients even if the union strikes."

Several job postings from Huffmaster list Buffalo and New York, one reads: "Huffmaster Companies is recruiting experienced Central Sterile Processing Techs to work during a possible labor dispute at an Acute Care facility in New York State expected to occur at the end of September or early October."

The Communication Workers of America which represents staff at Mercy Hospital has said staffing ratios, for how many nurses would have to be on duty based on the number of patients remain a big sticking point in negotiations.

Erin Hatton is an associate professor at the University at Buffalo who has researched and written about the use of agencies like Huffmaster amid union disputes.

"This niche is especially prevalent in the nursing and healthcare industry because the unions have to give the hospitals 10-days notice," Hatton said. "This is for legal reasons, this is for patient care reasons but it also means [healthcare providers] have more leeway to hire replacements so there are a fair number of these agencies."

It's also not abnormal she said, that these replacement jobs come with huge albeit short-term salaries. Registered nurses hired through Huffmaster could make as much as $150 per hour at Mercy Hospital according to one job posting. Hatton added hospital systems are usually willing to make a temporary investment, especially amid negotiations.

"It puts an enormous amount of pressure on the union and the workers themselves and when that happens they tend to lose out a bit," Hatton said.

"There is not a rule about how these negotiations and how labor disputes in the hospital setting end, I mean usually there are pretty significant concessions on both sides but with these agencies, the employer gains an edge."

Catholic Health suspended in-patient elective surgeries and their delivery and labor services Wednesday. On Tuesday they also requested local ambulances, to no longer bring patients to its emergency room but said no ambulance would be turned away.

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