Thousands of New York City nurses ended their strike at two major hospital systems and returned to work Thursday after reaching tentative agreements with management on improved staffing and compensation.
The New York State Nurses Association, which represents more than 42,000 members, said the tentative agreement includes 19.1 percent salary increases distributed over three years, enhanced health benefits, hourly raises for nurses with advanced degrees and enforceable mandatory nurse-to-patient staffing ratios.
“The staffing ratio is going to be a better environment for them, because our nurses, even before the pandemic, but my God, during that pandemic, they suffered, they worked so hard,” New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) told reporters while visiting Mount Sinai as nurses returned to work. “They saw such death and devastation, and they just kept showing up.”
The work stoppage had wide-ranging effects across New York’s health system, which is grappling with the “tripledemic” of the coronavirus, RSV and the seasonal flu. Northeast health facilities are also bracing for a potential coronavirus case spike resulting from the new XBB.1.5 variant.
Mount Sinai nurses walked back into the hospital at 7 a.m. Thursday, “after winning wall-to-wall safe staffing ratios for all inpatient units with firm enforcement so that there will always be enough nurses at the bedside to provide safe patient care, not just on paper,” Nancy Hagans, the union’s president, said in a statement. “New staffing ratios take effect immediately in a historic breakthrough for hospitals that refused to consider ratios that nurses have been demanding for decades.”
At Montefiore, the contract calls for one nurse for every two critical care patients, five acute care patients and eight subacute patients, she told reporters Thursday afternoon.
Hagans provided few details on the staffing enforcement agreement with Mount Sinai, citing late night negotiations. The hospitals and union reached the agreements at 3 a.m.
“If you want to see some happy nurses returning to work to do what they love, caring for patients, visit some hospitals at 6:30 tonight," Hagans said.
Mount Sinai also announced the end of the strike, saying the “proposed agreement is similar to those between NYSNA and eight other New York City hospitals. It is fair and responsible, and it puts patients first.”
Philip Ozuah, Montefiore’s president and chief executive, said in a statement that the hospital was pleased with the tentative agreement. “We came to these bargaining sessions with great respect for our nurses and with proposals that reflect their priorities in terms of wages, benefits, safety, and staffing,” he said.
Nurses at Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in Brooklyn also reached a tentative deal in the night and withdrew their 10-day strike notice, Hagans said.
As nurses demonstrated in the cold, the New York Fire Department diverted ambulances from emergency rooms where nurses had walked out. Staffers from at least one outpatient clinic were being redirected to work at hospitals. And attending physicians at Montefiore facilities were performing duties typically performed by nursing assistants — jobs such as feeding and cleaning patients and changing beds.
“We are not trained to do these tasks,” one Montefiore physician told The Washington Post on Tuesday. The doctor said patients even laughed as the physician fumbled through certain chores.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, nurses have threatened strikes or walked off the job across the country, from California and Oregon to Chicago, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh, citing chronic burnout and lagging compensation.
“We are saying, it’s time for you to invest and retain nurses,” Hagans said at a rally Wednesday. “It’s time to attract good nurses. Because the nurses are going to be here, but you have to make it attractive. What do I mean by that? Safe staffing.”
According to one study, 100,000 nurses left the profession between 2020 and 2021 due to a number of suspected factors, including pandemic burnout, early retirements and staffing shortages.
“We are leaving the profession in droves because we go home with moral injury,” Benny Mathew, a Montefiore emergency room nurse, said at a rally Wednesday.
The nursing union won 19.1 percent pay increases over three years and had struck deals with handfuls of other hospital systems around the city on similar terms. The median annual salary for a registered nurse in 2021 was $77,600, according to federal data.
“You could never pay us enough,” Hagans said. “If we did fee for service, all of us would be millionaires right now. But we don’t. We do it because we care for patients.”