Doctors at Elmhurst Hospital Hit the Picket Line and Win Contract

Issue 280

The around 165 residents at Elmhurst, employed by Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, reached a tentative contract agreement that would give them an 18% raise over three years.

Steven Wishnia Jun 15, 2023

Medical residents at the city-run Elmhurst Hospital in Queens won a significant raise with a three-day strike in late May, and now residents at Mount Sinai Health System’s Morningside and West hospitals on the Upper West Side have warned they might walk out on similar issues. 

The around 165 residents at Elmhurst, employed by Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, reached a tentative contract agreement that would give them an 18% raise over three years. That more or less brings them to parity with nonunion residents at Mount Sinai’s flagship hospital on the Upper East Side, according to their union, the Committee of Interns and Residents (CIR) SEIU.

The strike was the first by residents in the city since 1990. Residents at Flushing and Jamaica hospitals in Queens, both managed by the nonprofit MediSys network, won new contracts in May just before their strike deadlines.

On June 2, the about 500 residents at Morningside and West hospitals gave management the 10-day advance notice legally required for health-care strikes, setting a deadline of 7 a.m. on June 13. They too are seeking parity with Mount Sinai’s nonunion residents.

Doctors based at those two hospitals have a “second-class residency” when it comes to salary and benefits, says Dr. Brian Brown, an emergency-room resident at both Morningside and West. “For residents at the same employer to make thousands of dollars more for the same work in a different zip code across Central Park is not fair.” He says he’s often worked in the same unit as residents from Mount Sinai Hospital.

Three out of four U.S. doctors now work for corporations, and they are increasingly seeking the protection that comes with being in a union.

Mount Sinai management said in a statement June 5 that it had “offered CIR a salary package equal to those the union has accepted at other New York City hospitals” on May 31. “However, we are prepared for any potential staffing changes to ensure patients and families receive the highest quality care under all circumstances.”

“We have not seen a lot of meaningful progress,” Dr. Brown told The Indypendent June 2.

Residents are doctors doing postgraduate work after completing their one-year internship. The programs typically last for three years, and longer for specialties such as neurosurgery, says CIR communications director Sunyata Altenor. They do much of the work at hospitals, putting in 80 hours per week on average — down from 100 hours three or four decades ago, she adds — and are there before and after the attending physicians, and often do out-of-title work such as drawing blood. 

Other issues for the Morningside and West residents include hazard pay, retroactive pay — their contract expired Nov. 30, in the midst of the Omicron variant of — COVID-19’s surge — and fertility-preservation benefits. That’s important, Brown explains, because doctors typically spend the prime of their reproductive years working 80 hours per week. 

The New York strike authorizations are part of a recent wave of labor organizing by doctors. Around 8,000 residents and fellows have unionized since 2019, according to CIR, which now represents 27,000 resident physicians and fellows. And on June 8, residents at Massachusetts General hospital in Boston voted 1,215-412 to unionize.

Last month, doctors at Alameda Health System, a chain of hospitals and clinics in Oakland and the East Bay, reached what CIR calls “a groundbreaking tentative deal” after threatening an unfair-labor-practice strike. Last year, residents at Los Angeles County Hospital and Children’s Hospital Oakland also authorized strikes, but reached contract agreements before the deadline. 

One reason for increased organizing, Altenor says, is that three out of four U.S. doctors now work for corporations. “The more corporatized hospitals have become, the more doctors look to unions to get workplace rights,” she continues. “After the strain of the ­pandemic, workers were recognizing how little agency they had.”

“The newer generations of physicians are acutely aware of the nexus of money and power,” Dr. Brown says. “We are cheap labor for the health-care system.”

“Mount Sinai would be wise to note the current labor climate,” he continues, noting recent strikes by nurses and screenwriters. “It’s on them to avert the strike by coming back to the table with good-faith bargaining and real movement.”

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