7,000 nurses at two New York hospitals strike as contract talks break down

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The walkout of more than 7,000 nurses at two major New York City hospitals began Monday after talks to avert a strike broke down overnight.

Preliminary agreements were reached in recent days covering nurses at several hospitals, including two new agreements late on sunday evening. But negotiations with Mount Sinai Hospital on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and three locations at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx collapsed overnight.

“After late night shopping at Montefiore and Mount Sinai Hospital yesterday, no tentative agreements were reached. Today, more than 7,000 nurses at two hospitals are on strike for fair contracts that improve patient care,” the New York State Nurses Association said in a statement Monday.

Hundreds of nurses and supporters marched in front of Mount Sinai early Monday, filling two city blocks, with the number of pickets continuing to grow throughout the morning. The packaging was strewn across the street, sometimes blocking traffic. In Montefiore, demonstrators chanted “Safe staff save lives”. Passing motorists at both hospitals honked their horns in support, drawing cheers from the columns.

“We’ve been fighting to work in safer conditions,” Warren Urquhart, a transplant nurse at Mount Sinai, told CNN Monday while on the line. “Every day we do the best we can. Something is wrong at the hospital. That’s why we’re out of the hospital.

Cars honk as they drive past, causing the nurses to cheer and wave their signs.

Both hospitals said earlier Monday morning that efforts to reach an agreement had been unsuccessful.

“NYSNA management walked out of negotiations shortly after 1 a.m. ET, refusing to accept the exact same 19.1 percent pay increase proposal agreed to by eight other hospitals, including two other Mount Sinai Health System campuses, and ignoring the decision of governor to avoid a strike,” Lucia Lee, a spokeswoman for Mount Sinai, said in a statement to CNN.

Montefiore said it was a “sad day for New York.”

“Despite Montefiore’s proposal for a 19.1 percent compound pay increase — the same proposal agreed to by the wealthiest of our peer institutions — and a commitment to create over 170 new nursing positions … NYSNA leadership has decided to walk away from the beds of their patients,” the medical center said in a statement.

Although the union has agreed to the same raises at other hospitals, it said its main complaint at Mount Sinai and Montefiore is that nurses are overworked and facing burnout after three years on the front lines fighting the pandemic. They say the hours and stress of having too many patients to care for are driving nurses away and creating a worsening staffing and patient care crisis.

“We need leadership to come to the table and provide better staffing,” NYSNA President Nancy Hagans said in a press call Sunday afternoon.

The union insists it is striking in an effort to improve patient care.

“Going to the hospital to get the care you need is NOT crossing our picket line. Patients should seek hospital care immediately if they need it,” the statement said. “We’d rather be the ones providing that care, but our bosses made us here instead.”

According to Hagens, Montefiore has 760 nurse vacancies, adding that “too often, one ED nurse is responsible for 20 patients instead of the standard three patients.”

On Sunday night, New York Gov. Cathy Hochul urged management and the union to agree to binding arbitration as a way to avoid a strike. Although management at both hospitals embraced the idea, the union did not.

“We will not give up our fight to ensure our patients have enough nurses at the bedside,” the union said in response to Hochul’s arbitration proposal.

But the hospitals attacked the union’s decision to reject the arbitration offer and go on strike instead, and called on the nurses to reject the strike and stay on the job.

“NYSNA continues its reckless behavior. The governor’s proposal would have provided a path to avoid a strike,” Mount Sinai said in a statement Monday. “Our first priority is the safety of our patients. We are committed to minimizing disruption and encourage Mount Sinai nurses to continue to provide the world-class care they are known for despite the NYSNA strike.”

Hospitals have been bracing for strike action since the nurses’ union announced its plans 10 days ago. Affected hospitals plan to pay temporary “traveling” nurses to replace them when possible, and some have already begun transferring patients. A Mount Sinai spokesman said Monday that it had brought in “hundreds” of traveling nurses and some of the hospitals’ non-nursing staff had been reassigned. There are 3,600 nurses at Mount Sinai Union.

Montefiore released a notice to staff, obtained by CNN, telling nurses how to leave the union and stay on the job if they want to continue caring for their patients.

Mount Sinai, which operates two hospitals that struck deals Sunday night, in addition to the one still facing a strike, baby transfer started in the neonatal intensive care unit late last week. Hospitals facing the possibility of strikes had already taken steps to postpone some election procedures.

The union says hospitals will spend more to hire temporary nurses at significantly higher costs. It claims hospitals must agree to their demands to hire more staff and provide the raises the union is seeking.

“As nurses, our primary concern is patient safety,” Hagens said in a statement Friday. “Yet nurses … have been forced to work understaffed, stretched to breaking point, sometimes with one ED nurse in charge of 20 patients. This is not safe for the nurses or our patients.

Hospitals say they are doing what they can to hire more nursing staff.

“Mount Sinai is appalled by NYSNA’s reckless actions,” Mount Sinai said in a statement Friday. “The union jeopardizes patient care and forces the valued nurses of Mount Sinai to choose between their dedication to patient care and their own livelihoods.”

Nurses at the first hospital to reach a tentative deal, New York-Presbyterian, ratified that agreement in a result announced by the union on Saturday. It was a close call with 57% of nurses voting yes and 43% voting against. Tentative agreements reached over the past few days still need to be ratified by rank-and-file union members before they can take effect.

Strikes have become more common across the country as tight labor markets and dissatisfaction with working conditions have prompted unionized workers to show muscle more often at the bargaining table.

There were 385 strikes in 2022, up 42 percent from 270 in 2021, according to Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. The US Labor Department, which tracks only large strikes of 1,000 or more workers, recorded 20 strikes in the first 11 months of 2022, up 33% from the same period in 2021.

Numerous strikes by nurses were among the work stoppages recorded, with many unions citing cases of burnout and health problems among members.

Four of the 20 strikes reported by the Labor Department last year involved nurses’ unions. The largest was a a three-day strike of the 15,000 members of the Minnesota Nurses Association, which includes 13 hospitals in the state.

—CNN’s Tammy Luby, Tina Burnside, Artemis Moshtaghian and Ramisha Marouf contributed to this report.

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