- Associated Press - Monday, September 1, 2014

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - Brooks Memorial Hospital and its largest union reached a tentative contract last week, after five months of talks - but only after a federal mediator was brought in, there was picketing outside the Dunkirk facility and a union voted to authorize a strike.

In Niagara County, the jobs of as many as 60 full-time employees are in jeopardy as Eastern Niagara Hospital ended inpatient care at its Newfane site as of Friday.

And workers at long-term care facilities have faced layoffs, or uncertain futures, as nursing homes across the region have closed or switched from not-for-profit to private ownership.

“I think our members are feeling a greater amount of pressure on the job. The work is getting more difficult, and the fight to improve wages and benefits is more challenging year in and year out,” said Todd P. Hobler, vice president of Local 1199, Service Employees International Union United Healthcare Workers East, who represents nursing home workers in the area.

The health care workforce long has been a bright spot in the region’s lackluster jobs market, and it is a rare source of good news for private-sector unions whose memberships have shrunk recently.

But many workers feel under siege today, because the state and federal governments are prodding the industry to provide better care at lower costs.

At some facilities, workers face contentious contract negotiations, job cuts and growing demands on those left on the payroll - the nurses and aides who take care of our sick and our elderly. Other institutions try to work with their union employees.

“Costs are so out of control, and there are so many opportunities for bringing efficiency in the delivery of health care,” said Paul E. Tesluk, chairman of the University at Buffalo’s department of organization and human resources.

Spending on health care in this country hit $2.8 trillion in 2012, a figure that rose by 70 percent from 2002 and that accounts for 17 percent of our gross domestic product. Experts say this country can’t afford to continue to pay that much for care.

For all of that spending, however, the United States ranks poorly among the world’s industrialized countries when measuring health outcomes.

“So we have a real problem on our hands,” said Peter M. Lazes, director of the Healthcare Transformation Project at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Health care is a key piece of the economy, however, and the trillions of dollars spent on health care nationally support 18 million jobs in that sector.

In Buffalo Niagara, health care has seen steady growth even as overall employment has stagnated.

Any efforts to rein in health care spending put those jobs at risk, and that’s why the health care sector is shaping up as a major battleground for private-sector unions.

At Eastern Niagara Hospital, the equivalent of 60 full-time workers there are likely to lose their jobs because the hospital on Friday ended inpatient care at its Newfane site. That location will remain open, for emergency and outpatient services, with the equivalent of 34 full-time employees, while inpatient services are transferred to the hospital’s larger Lockport site.

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