NEW YORK (AP) — Thousands of nurses went on strike Monday at two major New York hospitals after contract negotiations over staffing and pay stalled nearly three years into the coronavirus pandemic.
Privately owned nonprofit hospitals have been postponing non-emergency surgeries, rerouting ambulances to other medical centers, hiring temporary staff and assigning administrators with nursing degrees to work on wards to cope with the exodus.
As many as 3,500 nurses at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx and about 3,600 at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan were out of a job. Talks were expected to resume Monday afternoon in Montefiore, but it was not immediately known when the talks might resume at Mount Sinai.
Hundreds of nurses protested, some singing the chorus of Twisted Sister’s 1984 hit “We’re Not Gonna Take It” at Mount Sinai. It was one of many New York hospitals flooded with COVID-19 patients as the virus turned the city into an epicenter of deaths in the spring of 2020.
“Until two years ago, we were heroes,” said Warren Urquhart, a nurse in the transplant and oncology units. “We were on the front lines of the city when everything came to a standstill. And now we have to stop so they understand how much we mean to this hospital and to the patients.”
The nurses’ union, the New York State Nurses Association, said members had to strike because they were caring for too many patients due to chronic staff shortages.
Jed Basubas said he generally takes care of eight to 10 patients at a time, double the ideal number on the units where he works. Nurse Juliet Escalon said she sometimes skips bathroom breaks to attend to patients. So does Ashleigh Woodside, who said her 12-hour shifts in the operating room often stretch into 14 hours because short staffing forces her and others to work overtime.
“We love our work. We want to take care of our patients. But we want to do it safely and in a humane way where we feel valued,” said Woodside, who has been a nurse for eight years.
The hospitals said they offered the same raises — totaling 19% over three years — that unions have accepted at several other facilities where contract negotiations have reached tentative agreements in recent days.
Montefiore said it has agreed to add 170 more nurses. The Mount Sinai administration said the union’s focus on nurse-to-patient ratios “ignores the progress we’ve made in recruiting and hiring more new nurses, despite a global health worker shortage impacting hospitals across the country.”
Hospitals said Monday they had prepared for the strike and were working to minimize disruption.
“We remain committed to providing seamless and compassionate care because we recognize that the union leadership’s decision will fuel fear and uncertainty throughout our community,” Montefiore said. “This is a sad day for New York City.
Mount Sinai called the union “reckless”.
Gov. Kathy Hochul urged the union and hospitals late Sunday to take their dispute to binding arbitration. Montefiore’s administration said it was willing to let arbitrators settle the contract “as a means of achieving a just outcome.”
The union did not immediately accept the proposal. In a statement, it said Hochul, a Democrat, “should listen to the heroes of the frontline COVID nurses and respect our federally protected labor and collective bargaining rights.”
A number of other city and state Democratic politicians, including Attorney General Letitia James, joined the union’s lunchtime rally on Monday, flanked by employees carrying signs such as “Patients over Profits” and “Will Work for Respect.”
Both hospitals were preparing to flee by transporting patients, including newborns from intensive care at Mount Sinai.
Montefiore and Mount Sinai are the latest in a group of hospitals with union contracts to expire at the same time. The nurses’ association initially warned that they would all be struck at the same time — a potential disaster even in a city with as many hospitals as New York.
But as the deadline approached, one by one the other hospitals reached an agreement with the unions.
Nurses at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital ratified a deal on Saturday that will give them raises of 7%, 6% and 5% over the next three years, while increasing staffing. The deal, which affects 4,000 nurses, has been seen as a model for dealing with other hospital systems.
Nurses at two facilities in the Mount Sinai system also tentatively agreed to Sunday contracts. But at the system’s flagship hospital on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, no such contract existed.
Associated Press writer Karen Matthews contributed to this report.
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