More than 7,000 nurses at two New York City hospitals went on strike early Monday, forcing health centers into a frenzied rush to transport patients, divert ambulances and reduce other services.
Strikes over working conditions, salaries and personnel policies have posed serious challenges for hospitals, which are already facing the “triple disease” of RSV, flu and Covid-19 cases across the city.
Unable to reach agreement in a late-night bargaining session on Sunday, the New York State Nurses Association said early Monday nurses were on strike at two hospitals: Mount Sinai Medical Center on the Upper East Side and Montefiore Medical Center, in the Bronx.
“The time has come for hospitals to treat these nurses fairly with the dignity and respect they deserve, to ensure that nurses can return to serve their communities by providing superior care to their patients,” said Mario Cilento, President of New York State. The AFL-CIO said in a statement on Monday.
Hospitals rushed to recruit temporary staff and resume operations, even recruiting doctors to fill nurse shortages. Montefiore Medical Center said on Monday that despite management’s bid for a 19.1 percent compound pay increase and a commitment to create more than 170 new nursing positions, union leadership “decided to move away from their patients’ bedside.”
“Recognizing that the union leadership’s decision will ignite fear and uncertainty in our society, we remain committed to uninterrupted and compassionate care,” the statement said.
Mount Sinai executives said in an emailed statement that the union leadership had withdrawn from the negotiations at 1 a.m. Monday morning. “Our first priority is the safety of our patients,” the statement said. “We are prepared to minimize disruption and encourage Mount Sinai nurses to continue providing the world-class care they know.”
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Union officials said they were fighting for pay raises to keep up with inflation. They also said that hospitals are not hiring enough nurses to cope with the shortfalls created by the Covid-19 outbreak and they want staffing ratios to be improved.
“We don’t take strike lightly, but that’s what happens if our bosses leave us no choice,” said Nancy Hagans, president of the Nurses Association, which represents 42,000 nurses in New York State.
On Sunday night, Governor Kathy Hochul called for binding arbitration “so that all parties can reach a resolution quickly”. Officials from both hospitals said they would welcome arbitration and hoped the nurses union would accept and delay the strike deadline, but union officials did not accept the offer.
“Governor Hochul must listen to the COVID nurse heroes on the front lines and respect our federally protected rights to work and collective bargaining.” “The nurses don’t want to go on strike. Bosses have forced us to strike, refusing to seriously consider our proposals to address the desperate crisis of employing unsafe staff that harms our patients.”
Negotiations have dragged on for nearly three years, with an outbreak that has left some front-line health workers with deep distrust of management and prompted nurses to leave the country and overseas states. Nurses in England went on strike last month for the first time in the 74-year history of the country’s National Health Service.
Many nurses and doctors working in the first wave of the pandemic have not forgotten the conditions when Covid swept through the city in early 2020, with an influx of patients overwhelming hospitals and killing more than 22,000 residents. After it became clear that many hospitals did little to prepare and not nearly enough personal protective equipment, medical staff felt betrayed by managers.
The pandemic has also exacerbated the nurse shortage in New York. Many nurses leave long-time jobs in hospitals or leave the profession altogether for higher-paying short-term positions in medical personnel agencies. In turn, hospitals have become more dependent on recruiting contract nurses at higher hourly wages from employment agencies to fill the gap. But many hospitals in the city are understaffed with emergency departments and other units, meaning much more patients and stress for the nurses working there.
Ms. Hagan said hospitals’ failure to recruit new nurses has left hundreds of vacancies.
“Our #1 issue is a personnel crisis,” he said, adding, “This is an issue our employers ignore.”
Ms. Hagan said Montefiore in the Bronx had failed to hire nurses to fill 760 vacancies. Some nurses care for 20 patients at a time in units that are often overcrowded, particularly in the emergency room, which is “overcrowded enough to cause patients to be admitted to corridor beds rather than hospital rooms.”
On Sunday, two other Manhattan hospitals, operated by Mount Sinai Morningside and Mount Sinai West, both on the West Side, reached a tentative agreement with the union that included a 19.1 percent pay increase over three years.
Hospital officials said they made the same offer to nurses at Mount Sinai Hospital on Fifth Avenue, providing an additional $51,000 in cash compensation for each nurse and $19,500 in medical pay benefits over three years.
Nurses’ contracts at a dozen private hospitals in the city expired on December 31, and the union authorized a strike and sent hospitals 10 days’ notice.
Recently, the union has reached tentative contract agreements with many of these hospitals, including NewYork-Presbyterian, Maimonides Medical Center, University of Richmond Medical Center, Flushing Hospital Medical Center, BronxCare and Brooklyn Hospital Center.
Mount Sinai officials said Monday’s decision to strike would be reckless and put patients at risk.
In recent days, Montefiore and Mount Sinai have struggled to make arrangements for the impending strike, including safely discharging all patients as they can, bringing in reserve nurses, delaying many elective surgeries, and diverting ambulances to other hospitals.
Mount Sinai has begun moving some vulnerable patients, including fragile newborns in neonatal intensive care units, to other hospitals and helping cancer patients find alternative treatment sites. Officials said they transferred large numbers of patients from the three hospitals in talks to unaffected hospitals and partner hospitals in their systems.
Mayor Eric Adams said on Sunday night that he was communicating with the city’s hospital systems, but hospitals in parts of the city would likely be nervous.
“In the event of a strike, our system will be ready to take on the challenge,” he said, adding: “If a nurse’s strike does occur, hospitals in certain areas may affect operations, including possible delayed or limited service. We recommend that all New Yorkers call 911 for emergencies only and opt-in. We encourage them to be prepared to look for an alternative facility should their hospital be affected.”
Mount Sinai officials said in a statement that bargaining teams at the three hospitals had spoken to the nurses union more than 40 times since September and were working “to prevent patients from leaving their bedside in the midst of a tride of nurses.” They added that a strike would “put more strain on New York City’s emergency services and health systems in a time of crisis.”
In a note, Montefiore officials told nurses planning to join the strike to “end your shift, give your patients a clinical pass; You can’t leave the sick.”
Montefiore officials also said in a staff memo that they would open “command centers” to assist with hospital operations and keep police and extra security on site during a strike.
Jenny Gross and Sharon Otterman contributed to the reporting.