Union nurses from the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) strike outside Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.
By SHARON OTTERMAN and JENNY GROSS
Three days after going on strike, more than 7,000 nurses at two New York City hospitals will return to work after reaching tentative contract deals early Thursday that would increase their pay and improve their working conditions, union leaders said.
The nurses reached agreements with the two hospitals — Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan and Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx — to improve patient-to-staffing ratios, said the New York State Nurses Association, which represents more than 42,000 members. For nurses at Montefiore, the tentative deal would include a 19.1% wage increase over three years, and the creation of more than 170 new nursing positions, the hospital said.
“Through our unity and by putting it all on the line, we won enforceable safe staffing ratios at both Montefiore and Mount Sinai where nurses went on strike for patient care,” Nancy Hagans, the president of the union, said in a statement. “Today, we can return to work with our heads held high, knowing that our victory means safer care for our patients and more sustainable jobs for our profession.”
Mount Sinai and Montefiore said in separate statements that they welcomed the agreements with the union.
“It is fair and responsible, and it puts patients first,” Mount Sinai said.
Philip O. Ozuah, the chief executive of Montefiore Medicine, said the hospital was “grateful for the dedication and commitment of our nurses who have served through very challenging circumstances over the past several years.”
The hospitals had diverted ambulances, canceled elective procedures and discharged patients to prepare for the labor action, the largest nurses strike in New York City in decades. It began Monday morning after the hospitals and union failed to reach a deal following four months of contract negotiations.
After the strike began Monday, Montefiore called in temporary nurses, and the mayor asked people to dial 911 only when necessary. While the emergency room waiting area was mostly empty this week, conditions inside the hospital were “chaotic,” some patients and staff said, as medical residents and other staff were pressed into service to do nursing duties.
The main sticking points in the negotiations at both Montefiore and Mount Sinai had been staffing: Nurses had asked the hospital administrations to attract and hire more nurses and reduce patient-staff ratios to improve working conditions and patient safety.
Nurses in the intensive care units at both hospitals said they had been routinely asked to care for up to three critically ill patients at a time, even when patients should have received one-on-one care. In packed emergency rooms, nurses described being asked to care for 15 patients at once in overcrowded conditions.
“We are leaving the profession in droves because we go home with moral injury,” Benny Mathew, a Montefiore emergency nurse for a decade, said before the end of the strike was announced. “We go home crying because we are not able to meet the needs of our patients.”
Kavita Paltoo, 36, works in the stroke unit and has been at Mount Sinai for six years. On the picket line Wednesday, she described double and even triple loads for nurses in intensive and critical care units, and said she regularly works 14 hour shifts with no lunch breaks.
“We’re literally just giving medication and moving to the next patient,” she said. “We’re not providing quality of care. We’re not able to listen to the patient.”
Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, a nurse on the negotiating committee at Montefiore, said that an agreement was reached at about 1 a.m. Thursday, and that Mount Sinai talks concluded at about the same time.
She said the agreement marked the first time that Montefiore had agreed to nurse-patient ratios in the emergency department, and said that those ratios would match those set for the floors upstairs, varying depending on patients’ needs. A system to enforce the ratios was also established, she said, a key ask for the nurses.
“They moved on every important issue,” she said. “We are really happy. We hope that this is a way to make our hospital a great hospital again.”
New recruitment incentives and programs were also set up to help recruit local Bronx nurses to stay as union nurses at Montefiore for the long run, the union said.
At Mount Sinai, the contract sets out staffing ratios for the first time for all inpatient units with an enforcement mechanism, the union said. The new staffing ratios will take effect as soon as the contract is ratified.
Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office helped to facilitate a deal, with her head of state operations, Kathryn Garcia, serving as the point person.
“Even really an hour before I gave the State of the State address, I was on the phone working on staffing ratios and other priorities because I knew we had to get this done,” Hochul said Thursday morning.
Margarit Anderegg, a nurse in the labor and delivery unit at Mount Sinai, said nurses began to exchange excited messages on a WhatsApp thread shortly after the agreement was finalized at about 2 a.m. Because mothers were sent to other hospitals to deliver during the strike, the nurses returned at 7 a.m. Thursday to a largely empty unit and relieved medical residents who had been filling in for them.
One resident came up to a nurse when she walked in and said, “Oh my god, thank god you are back,” the nurse recounted in the text chain.
“I’m exhausted,” Anderegg said. “It was historic that we actually went on strike, and the community and the energy was overwhelming.”
Nurses will now vote on whether to ratify the contracts by the end of next week.
The nurses last three-year contract expired Dec. 31, and the union has now reached deals with management at nearly a dozen private hospitals across the city. A tentative deal was also reached early Thursday at Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in Brooklyn, and nurses there withdrew their 10-day strike notice.