After a nearly-unanimous decision by their voting members, the unions representing URMC caregivers and service workers issued on Nov. 30 a 10-day notice for a strike.

1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East (1199SEIU UHWE) represents bedside caregivers and patient service workers at Strong Memorial Hospital, and service workers across the River Campus are represented by SEIU Local 200 United. 99% of voters from the two unions fell in favor of the strike scheduled for Dec. 13.

Their contract, which covers roughly 1,800 workers, expired on Oct. 31 after several extensions. The unions are bargaining for a living wage and comprehensive benefits to help recruit and retain staff, according to 1199SEIU UHWE’s press release. Both unions say Strong Memorial Hospital faces staffing problems that inhibit the Level 1 trauma center’s ability to provide quality care and timely services for patients.

“It feels like they want us to work more for less money,” Dana Allison, patient care technician at Strong Memorial Hospital, said in the press release. “My job requires patience and understanding to provide care for the patients as they recover from surgery. Many people come in and they are nervous about their procedure, and I reassure them and their family, but sometimes if we are short that special attention can’t be given because we have so many other tasks to complete to keep surgeries flowing for the day.”

URMC and the unions have only agreed on non-economic aspects of the contract after 30 days of negotiations, the press release also stated. On behalf of both unions involved, 1199SEIU UHWE filed two unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board alleging URMC violated the National Labor Relations Act by failing to bargain in good faith and by refusing to furnish information.

“This employer failed its workers and our community by not returning with a counter proposal today. Their failure to bargain in good faith has forced us to issue the 10-day notice,” 1199SEIU Vice-President Tracey Harrison said in the Nov. 30 press release. “Beyond the money, it’s a matter of respect for the workers who provide healthcare and student services to this community.”

In a statement, URMC contested the charges. They said they have been negotiating in good faith with both unions for a “competitive, fair, and equitable” contract renewal.

The unions say the fight for a fair contract is also about lifting some workers out of poverty. UR is the sixth largest private sector employer in the state and the leading private sector employer based in upstate New York, according to the URMC website. As of 2018, Rochester had the third highest poverty rate of the country’s 75 largest metropolitan areas, according to the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative.

“The rents in the city are so high. I went from paying $800 per month to $1,200 per month and it takes a full months’ worth of paychecks,” Julie Clough, courier for clinical labs at URMC, said in the 1199SEIU UHWE press release. “After rent is paid, I have only a little left to pay other bills and to eat. Right now, I work full-time but I live paycheck to paycheck, and I worry if I have enough food to eat.”

The contract dispute has also garnered political attention.

“Amid growing shortages and consistently full capacities at hospitals, our community cannot afford to lose these crucial team members due to insufficient wages and benefits,” Rochester City Council members said in a signed letter to UR President Sarah Mangelsdorf.

State Assemblymember Demond Meeks said in his own statement that front-line employees deserve a wage that reflects the rising cost of living.

“I continue to urge the University of Rochester Medical Center, 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East and 200United SEIU to work collaboratively to settle a fair contract that recognizes the invaluable service of its many essential workers,” Meeks said in the press release. “Our largest employers have the responsibility to take the lead on providing living wages for our residents and families.”

URMC issued the following statement on the contract negotiations:

Despite our extensive efforts, SEIU submitted an intent to strike notice on Thursday, Nov. 30, with a one-day strike action scheduled to take place on Wednesday, Dec. 13. Contingency plans are in place that will ensure that all University operations and activities, including patient care at the Medical Center, will continue without disruption. University officials are confident that in the event of a prolonged strike, campus operations will continue as normal without interruption, however they are always willing and prepared to meet at the bargaining table to continue to negotiate a fair and equitable contract. The University recognizes and respects 1199SEIU and 200United SEIU’s right to engage in a strike, which is a legally protected union activity.

1199SEIU and SEIU Local 200 United’s concerns about alleged staffing problems at Strong Memorial Hospital are reflective of a nationwide problem.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, staffing issues have come to plague the entire healthcare industry, and local healthcare institutions have become prominent sites of labor organizing and disputes in turn.

Nurses at Rochester General Hospital recently ratified a 42-month contract after threatening a second strike over compensation and benefit disagreements. They voted for their union — the Rochester Union of Nurses and Allied Professionals — in July 2022, and improving compensation and benefits to boost nurse-to-patient ratios has been central to their campaign.

In June, homecare providers at Community Care Companions statewide voted to join 1199SEIU UHWE, and that figure included over 400 workers based in Buffalo and Rochester, according to a press release. The union said strain-inducing staff turnover caused by low wages also factored into workers’ concerns at the company.

Workers at the Rochester Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing, also represented by 1199SEIU UHWE, picketed last summer over similar concerns during their own contract negotiations.

And now many URMC workers say Strong Memorial Hospital faces the same challenges — including Arleata Robin White, a patient care technician at the hospital that 1199SEIU UHWE quoted in their press release.

“Working short in our department causes a lot of tension because we can’t do our jobs providing the quality care we want to give,” White said.

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