More than 7,000 nurses at two hospitals in New York City went on strike early Monday, forcing the health centers into a frantic flurry to move patients, divert ambulances and scale back other services.
The strikes, over working conditions, salaries and staffing policies, presented serious challenges to hospitals already facing the “tripledemic” of R.S.V., flu and Covid-19 cases across the city.
After failing to reach an agreement during a late-night bargaining session on Sunday, the New York State Nurses Association said early Monday that nurses were on strike at two hospitals: the Mount Sinai Medical Center, on the Upper East Side, and Montefiore Medical Center, in the Bronx.
“It is time for the hospitals to treat these nurses fairly, with the dignity and respect they deserve, to ensure nurses can get back to serving their communities by providing superior care to their patients,” Mario Cilento, the president of the New York State A.F.L.-C.I.O. said in a statement on Monday.
The hospitals rushed to bring in temporary staff and continue operations, even pressing doctors into service to fill nursing shortages. In a statement on Monday, Montefiore Medical Center said the union’s leadership had “decided to walk away from the bedsides of their patients,” despite management’s offer of a 19.1 percent compounded wage increase and its commitment to creating more than 170 new nursing positions.
“We remain committed to seamless and compassionate care, recognizing that the union leadership’s decision will spark fear and uncertainty across our community,” the statement said.
Mount Sinai administrators said in an emailed statement that the union leadership had walked out of negotiations at 1 a.m. on Monday morning. “Our first priority is the safety of our patients,” the statement said. “We’re prepared to minimize disruption, and we encourage Mount Sinai nurses to continue providing the world-class care they’re known for.”
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Union officials said they were fighting for pay raises to keep up with inflation. They also said hospitals have not hired enough nurses to deal with shortages created by the Covid-19 pandemic and have asked for improved staffing ratios.
“We do not take striking lightly, but that’s what’s going to happen if our bosses give us no other choice,” said Nancy Hagans, president of the Nurses Association, which represents 42,000 nurses in New York State.
On Sunday night, Gov. Kathy Hochul called for binding arbitration “so that all parties can swiftly reach a resolution.” Officials from both hospitals said they would welcome arbitration and hoped the nurses’ union would agree and postpone its strike deadline, but union officials did not accept the offer.
“Gov. Hochul should listen to frontline Covid nurse heroes and respect our federally protected labor and collective bargaining rights,” union officials said in a statement. “Nurses don’t want to strike. Bosses have pushed us to strike by refusing to seriously consider our proposals to address the desperate crisis of unsafe staffing that harms our patients.”
The negotiations are taking place nearly three years into a pandemic that has left some frontline medical workers with deep distrust for management, prompting nurses to walk out in states across the country, as well as overseas. Nurses in Britain 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 who worked through the first wave of the pandemic have not forgotten the conditions when Covid first swept through the city in early 2020, overwhelming hospitals with a surge of patients and killing more than 22,000 residents. Medical staff felt betrayed by administrators, after it became clear many hospitals had done too little in the way of preparation and there wasn’t nearly enough personal protective equipment.
The pandemic has also exacerbated a nursing shortage in New York. Many nurses left longstanding jobs at hospitals for higher-paying short-term assignments with medical staffing agencies, or they left the profession altogether. Hospitals in turn have grown more reliant on hiring contract nurses at higher-hourly rates from staffing agencies to fill the gap. But emergency departments and other units remain understaffed at many hospitals across the city, which means far more patients and stress for the nurses working there.
Ms. Hagan said hospitals’ failure to hire new nurses has left hundreds of unfilled slots.
“Our No. 1 issue is a crisis of staffing,” she said, adding, “It is an issue that our employers have ignored.”
Montefiore, in the Bronx, has failed to hire nurses to fill 760 empty slots, Ms. Hagan said. Some nurses are tending up to 20 patients at a time in units that are often swamped — especially the emergency room, which is “so overcrowded that patients are admitted in beds in the hallway instead of hospital rooms,” she said.
On Sunday, two other Manhattan hospitals, both run by the Mount Sinai Health System — Mount Sinai Morningside and Mount Sinai West, both on the West Side — reached a tentative settlement with the union, which included a 19.1 percent wage increase over three years.
Hospital officials said they had made the same offer, which provided an additional $51,000 in cash compensation for each nurse and $19,500 in medical payment benefits over three years, to nurses at the Mount Sinai Hospital on Fifth Avenue.
Nurses’ contracts expired on Dec. 31 at a dozen private hospitals in the city, and the union authorized a strike and sent the hospitals a 10-day notice.
In recent days, the union reached tentative contract agreements with most of those hospitals, including NewYork-Presbyterian, Maimonides Medical Center, Richmond University Medical Center, Flushing Hospital Medical Center, BronxCare and the Brooklyn Hospital Center.
Mount Sinai officials said the decision to strike on Monday would be reckless and would jeopardize patients.
In recent days, Montefiore and Mount Sinai scrambled to make arrangements for the looming strike, including discharging all the patients they safely could, bringing in substitute nurses, postponing many elective surgeries and diverting ambulances to other hospitals.
Mount Sinai began moving some vulnerable patients, including fragile newborns in neonatal intensive care units, to other hospitals, and helped cancer patients find alternative treatment locations. Officials said they transferred numerous patients from the three hospitals that were in negotiations to unaffected hospitals in their system and to partner hospitals.
Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement Sunday night that the city was communicating with the hospital systems, but said the hospitals in some areas of the city would likely be strained.
“In the event of a strike, our system will be prepared to meet the challenges,” he said, adding, “If there is a nurses’ strike, hospitals in certain areas may experience impacts to operations, including possible delayed or limited service. We encourage all New Yorkers to call 911 only for emergencies, and be prepared to seek an alternate facility in case their preferred hospital is impacted.”
Mount Sinai officials said in a statement that their bargaining teams at three hospitals have met with the nurses’ union more than 40 times since September, working “to avoid having nurses leave patients’ bedsides in the middle of a tridemic.” They added that a strike would “place even more strain on New York City’s emergency departments and health systems during a time of crisis.”
In a memo, Montefiore officials told nurses who planned on joining the strike that they were required to “finish your shift, providing a clinical handoff on your patients; you may not abandon patients.”
Montefiore officials also said in a staff memo that they would open “command centers” to assist with hospital operations and have police and extra security on site during a strike.
Jenny Gross and Sharon Otterman contributed reporting.