‘This Is How You Treat Heroes?' 7,000 Nurses Strike at 2 of NYC's Biggest Hospitals

The hospitals have been getting ready for a walkout by transferring patients, diverting ambulances to other institutions, postponing non-emergency medical procedures and arranging to bring in temporary staffing.

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What to Know

  • About 3,500 Montefiore nurses and 3,625 Mount Sinai nurses went on strike at 6 a.m. Monday, potentially disrupting healthcare for thousands of New Yorkers as contract talks stall
  • The hospitals have been getting ready for a walkout by transferring patients, diverting ambulances to other institutions, postponing non-emergency procedures and arranging to bring in temporary staffing
  • Gov. Kathy Hochul urged the union and the hospitals late Sunday to take their dispute to binding arbitration, but the Democrat cannot force either side into arbitration

Nurses at two of New York City's largest hospitals went on strike Monday, potentially leading to disruptions in care around emergency room visits and childbirth, after lengthy weekend negotiations over a new contract stalled.

Frustrated nurses chanted and waved signs outside Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx and Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan demanding higher wages. The walkout involves as many as 3,500 Montefiore nurses and 3,600 from Mount Sinai.

The New York State Nurses Association, which represents the workers, said it was being forced into the drastic step because of chronic understaffing that leaves them caring for too many patients.

Striking nurses sang the chorus from Twisted Sister’s 1984 hit “We’re Not Gonna Take It” on Monday morning outside Mount Sinai on Manhattan's Upper East Side, hours after overnight talks collapsed. Later in the day, a few bottles were thrown toward the picketers from a window of a NYCHA building across the street, Police said they were looking into the matter.

“We were heroes only two years ago,” said Warren Urquhart, a nurse in transplant and oncology units, referring to the height of the COVID-19 crisis. "We was on the front lines of the city when everything came to a stop. And now we need to come to a stop so they can understand how much we mean to this hospital and to the patients.”

Nurses at Mount Sinai Hospital and Montefiore Medical Center walked off the job at 6 a.m. Monday. Romney Smith reports.

Nurse practitioner Juliet Escalon said, "We were so-called heroes — and now, this is how you treat the heroes?”

Union sources familiar with the negotiations said that nurses at Mount Sinai's main campus want what their peers at Mount Sinai West already got in their deal, which includes a more generous range of "differential" bonus pay for more experienced nurses. Sources also said they are also looking for a built-in arbitration mechanism that would settle staffing and work conditions disputes (such as alleged failure to give nurses breaks) as they come up. The latter issue is something that Montefiore nurses are discussing with hospital management, and that Mount Sinai's team is hoping to discuss on Tuesday — if the hospital and union meet.

"There are nurses who come to work and don't eat lunch while here or use the bathroom because they are spread so thin," Dzifa Dzilah.

Union officials say nurses are pushing the issue of staffing levels for patients’ sake, as well as their own. Escalon said she sometimes finds herself caring for twice as many people as standards call for and skipping bathroom breaks to attend to patients.

“What we’re really fighting here for is patient safety,” she said. “How can I pay attention to your needs when I’m being called somewhere else with the rest of the patients?”

Mount Sinai’s chief nursing officer, Fran Cartwright, has said that she empathizes with overtaxed nurses and that the hospital needs time to rebuild its ranks after the coronavirus pandemic spurred upheaval and departures in nursing and many other professions.

"We are hearing our nurses here today saying safe staffing. We had sent a proposal and when they left at 1 a.m., they hadn't sent us a counter," said Cartwright.

Elected officials, including New York Attorney General Letitia James, said Mount Sinai had already ignored staffing guidelines — which the state was supposed to keep tabs on. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders also allied with the nurses, noting that if the hospitals "could afford increase their assets by over $1 billion in 2021, they can afford to pay their nurses fair wages and treat them with dignity & respect."

In the meantime, both hospitals planned to assign managers and others not represented by the union to cover the shifts of striking workers. Temporary nurses took over on Monday, along with doctors and managers filling in.

It was not immediately clear if both sides would return to the negotiating table on Tuesday, but the hospital's lead negotiator said they hoped talks would resume then. Union representatives said they usually get invited to talks the morning of said meetings.

"When you see nurses on the outside, you'd best believe there something wrong on the inside," said NYSNA Executive Director Pat Kane.

Montefiore officials said in a statement Monday, “We remain committed to seamless and compassionate care, recognizing that the union leadership’s decision will spark fear and uncertainty across our community.”

According to Montefiore, NYSNA are seeking an "increase of more than 25% for each nurse over three years, well above the 19.1% they've been agreeing to in every other new agreement they just reached" at other hospitals.

"Not only do they continue to demand additional wage increases, they also continue to make demands on staffing, though they responded to our offer to hire an additional 50 nurse positions by stating they would prefer those dollars to instead be reallocated to wages," the hospital's public relations spokesperson said.

By 10 p.m., nurses had left Montefiore saying that they had made progress in negotiations, but that talks would continue at 10 a.m. Tuesday. The nurses union said they were hopeful a deal could be reached some time soon.

Montefiore and Mount Sinai had been getting ready for a walkout by transferring patients, diverting ambulances to other institutions, postponing nonemergency medical procedures and arranging for temporary staffing.

Gov. Kathy Hochul urged the union and the hospitals late Sunday to take their dispute to binding arbitration. Montefiore's administration had said it was willing to let an arbitrator settle the contract “as a means to reaching an equitable outcome.”

The union did not immediately accept the proposal. In a statement, it said Hochul, a Democrat, “should listen to the frontline COVID nurse heroes and respect our federally-protected labor and collective bargaining rights.”

Montefiore and Mount Sinai are the last of a group of hospitals with contracts with the union that expired simultaneously. The Nurses Association had initially warned that it would strike at all of them at the same time — a potential calamity even in a city with as many hospitals as New York.

A union negotiator told News 4 New York talks were set to resume in regards to Montefiore nurses at 2 p.m. Monday, pointing out talks would not be progressing if there was not a strike. 

But one by one, the other hospitals struck agreements with the union as the deadline approached.

Nurses at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital ratified a deal Saturday that will give them raises of 7%, 6%, and 5% over the next three years while also increasing staffing levels. That deal, which covers 4,000 nurses, has been seen as a template for the negotiations with other hospital systems.

Nurses at two facilities in the Mount Sinai system also tentatively agreed to contracts Sunday. But negotiations continued at the system's flagship hospital on Manhattan's East Side.

Mount Sinai's administration said in a statement that the union’s focus on staffing-to-patient ratios “ignores the progress we have made to attract and hire more new nurses, despite a global shortage of healthcare workers that is impacting hospitals across the country.”

A few hospitals remain were still at the bargaining table over the weekend ahead of a looming nurses strike on Monday. News 4's Myles Miller reports.

The nurses union said that it isn't fair to compare the offer given at NY-Presbyterian to those at Mount Sinai or Montefiore due to differences in salaries, noting at NY-Presbyterian nurses make more, and that staffing levels are different. The union said that there are 700 unfilled nursing positions at Montefiore and 500 at Mount Sinai; NY-Presbyterian only has about 100 unfilled slots.

A spokesperson for Mount Sinai said that those openings represent openings system-wide, and "not all at the bedside."

"Over the last three years we've hired more than 4,000 new nurses with 503 more nurses working today than in 2019 — far exceeding our 2019 hiring commitment to NYSNA," the spokesperson added.

Hospital sources told NBC New York that the union's claims of the strike being about staffing isn't entirely accurate, saying that it has really been about the money. Montefiore said

As for those who are seeking care but didn't want to interfere with the strike, the nurses union in a statement stressed that "going into the hospital to get the care you need is NOT crossing our strike line. In fact, we invite you to come join us on the strike line after you've gotten the care you need. We are out here so we can provide better patient care for your."

For now, other emergency rooms are absorbing patients, but there was no real sign of impact yet. The FDNY said that it was too soon to notice any pattern or slowdown in ambulances.

Copyright NBC New York/Associated Press
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