‘Understaffed and underpaid’ nurses in America’s largest public health system rally after historic strikes

Thousands of nurses in the nation’s largest public health system are staring down the expiration of a union contract, demanding better wages and contending with staffing levels that are currently overwhelming staff.

After their peers in private hospital systems reached tentative agreements on new contracts after strike threats and a historic three-day walkout earlier this month, more than 9,000 nurses in New York City’s public health system are hoping to make similar gains. They’re arguing that their hospitals have even worse staff-to-patient ratios than private hospitals.

Less than a week after 7,000 private hospital nurses were on strike, dozens of public hospital nurses picketed the system’s lower Manhattan headquarters on 18 January for their own upcoming contract battle.

Their current contract expires on 2 March. But as public employees, they cannot legally go on strike.

“Our nurses in the public sector are under-resourced, understaffed, and underpaid,” New York State Nurses Association president Nancy Hagans said in a statement shared with The Independent.

“They do the same life-saving work as nurses in the private sector, yet they are paid so much less – and the disparity in pay is only growing,” she added. “We are all nurses. We demand health equity for our patients and communities, and we demand pay equity for the hardworking [public hospital] nurses.”

New York City Health+Hospitals serves more than 1.4 million New Yorkers each year, including 475,000 uninsured patients, according to the union. The system accounts for 18 per cent of total citywide hospital beds and provides nearly half of all of New York’s level 1 emergency trauma care – the most comprehensive level of care for critically ill or injured patients – as well as in-patient mental health services.

With a contract expiring in mere weeks, nurses are demanding city officials negotiate a contract. The union, which represents 40,000 New York City nurses, notes that thousands of nurses have already reached tentative agreements at 10 private hospital systems, seeing “historic” gains in safe-staffing ratios and wage increases reaching 19 per cent over three years.

With that increase in pay, the widening disparity between private- and public-sector nurses will grow to more than $19,500 a year. The union says this could dramatically impact retention rates in the city’s already-struggling public health system.

“Nurse retention is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” according to Dr Judith Cutchin, union vice president and president of the union’s New York City Health+Hospitals/Mayorals executive council.

Public health nurses are leaving the system or the profession entirely, she said in a statement shared with The Independent, “because it’s just too difficult to know that you cannot provide the level of care every patient deserves when you are always understaffed.”

“Public sector nurses cannot wait months and months to settle a fair contract,” added Sonia Lawrence, a nurse at Lincoln Hospital in The Bronx. “We will bleed too many nurses if the city waits to negotiate with us.”

New York City Council member Crystal Hudson, whose mother was a nurse at Harlem Hospital for more than 30 years, said the city’s nurses have “handled the impossible” through the Covid-19 pandemic and an explosion of flu and respiratory illnesses.

“Fair contracts for our nurses means greater care for our loved ones,” she said in a statement. “It means equity, and it means paying our nurses more than lip service.”

The hospital system “is grateful for the hard work, dedication, and sacrifice our highly-skilled nurses make every day,” according to a statement from spokesperson Christopher Miller to The City.

“We look forward to negotiating a new contract with [the union] when the current one expires in March and welcome new opportunities to strengthen our partnership with [the union] and the nurses who are so essential to our mission and our system’s success,” he added.