Resident physicians at Elmhurst Hospital walked off the job Monday morning after reaching an impasse in a salary dispute — the first time in more than three decades that doctors have gone on strike in New York City.
The doctors, members of the Committee of Interns and Residents-SEIU who intend to be on strike through Friday, are part of a revolt among health care workers radicalized by the broad impacts of the COVID pandemic to seek better pay and improved patient care standards.
Nowhere is that reckoning more apparent than for those who cut their teeth at Elmhurst Hospital, which for a period in 2020 was the global center of the pandemic.
“It is clear that resident physicians across the country are done with the toxic culture of medicine and the exploitation of its healthcare workers,” Dr. Sarah Hafuth, a first-year psychiatric resident, said during a Monday morning rally at the picket line.
While the doctors work at Elmhurst Hospital, part of the public NYC Health + Hospitals system, their residency program is operated by Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, where non-union residents who work at Mount Sinai’s private East Side flagship facility get paid about $7,000 a year more than their unionized colleagues.
Their strike marks the first time doctors have walked off the job in the five boroughs since 1990.
“This strike, as historic as it is, should not be happening,” said Hafuth. “We shouldn’t have to take time off work to fight for the minimum we need in order to get by. We shouldn’t have to beg Mount Sinai for the same benefits and support that resident doctors in wealthier communities have.”
By Monday evening, City Councilmember Shekar Krishnan, a Democrat representing Elmhurst and other neighborhoods, released a letter signed by 34 Councilmembers calling for Mt. Sinai to “immediately agree to their demand for pay equity.”
Mount Sinai spokesperson Lucia Lee said in a statement that the hospital is “committed to working towards an equitable and reasonable resolution that is in the best interest for both our residents at Elmhurst as well as for the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and are working closely with partners at Elmhurst Hospital to ensure the same quality and level of care and services that the local community expects and deserves are not affected by the strike.”
The city Health + Hospitals Corporation has mobilized clinicians from other public facilities to assist at Elmhurst while the residents strike, and other doctors who remain at the hospital have picked up additional shifts.
“Our resident physicians play a critical role in patient care. While we hope they reach an agreement to end the strike, we are fully prepared and have planned ahead to provide the necessary staff coverage,” said H+H spokesperson Christopher Miller. “Access to care for the community is our top priority. Our hospital and outpatient services remain open without interruption. Patients can keep their appointments, and we will continue to provide the compassionate, high quality of care they have come to expect from our team.”
The Elmhurst physicians aren’t the only residents demanding more pay from Mount Sinai: On Monday, 99% of nearly 500 medical residents at Mount Sinai Morningside and West campuses in Manhattan authorized a potential strike.
Last Friday, 99.6% of nurses at Methodist Hospital, part of the NewYork-Presbyterian system, similarly voted to authorize a strike if they cannot reach a contract deal without the staffing cuts proposed by management.
The Right to Strike
Tensions between the union and Mount Sinai had been boiling for months.
Hospital management has declined the doctors’ proposals for pay parity with non-union residents at Mount Sinai’s main campus on the Upper East Side – who stand to earn $11,000 more than the unionized doctors at Elmhurst this summer after planned raises kick in July, according to CIR-SEIU, up from the current $7,000 difference.
Management has also declined their proposals for $300 weekly hazard pay in the event of another public health emergency like the pandemic, doctors say.
“Mount Sinai knows exactly what they are doing. Pitting workers against each other by offering better salaries and benefits to our non-union colleagues is the oldest trick in the book and we will not stand for it,” said Dr. Tanathun Kajornsakchai, a fourth-year psychiatry resident who spoke at the Monday rally.
Another doctor who spoke at the rally claimed Mount Sinai had warned them as negotiations dragged on that a strike could affect their work visas. Other doctors who spoke with THE CITY backed his claim, but noted the hospital did not directly threaten their employment or visas.
“Even now, Mount Sinai is making us feel like residents are in jeopardy for striking based on our immigration status,” said second-year internal medicine resident Dr. Samkit Jain, noting that many residents from Mount Sinai’s program at Elmhurst are immigrants. “But let me make one thing crystal clear: regardless of our immigration status, regardless of whether you’re a visa holder, we have the right to strike. We will not be intimidated, we will not be bullied, we will not succumb to this fear.”
Lee, the Mount Sinai spokesperson, said when asked about the accounts: “We support the rights of all of the Elmhurst residents to strike and have never utilized any tactic meant to intimidate or discourage them from exercising their rights, no matter what their immigration status is.”
In the hours leading up to the strike, the union filed two unfair labor practice charges against management with the federal National Labor Relations Board. One alleges that Mount Sinai engaged in impermissible “direct dealing” with the residents rather than speaking only with their union’s bargaining committee and negotiators.
On Monday, the union filed another charge against Mount Sinai for allegedly calling police officers to remove picketing doctors from the public sidewalk in front of the hospital. The police eventually left without making arrests, a union official said.
“We had no involvement and we’re not aware at all of any NYPD presence,” Lee told THE CITY.
Those charges follow ones this past December, and again in February, alleging that Mount Sinai “refused to bargain in good faith with the union,” which remain under investigation by the board.
Meanwhile, non-union clinicians have been pulled in to cover striking doctors’ shifts. At Elmhurst’s psychiatric unit, Health + Hospitals deployed psychology interns to cover shifts for psychiatric residents, according to a source who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Those clinicians — graduate students who do clinical work as part of their training — are not able or qualified to give out prescriptions.
At the rally, doctors led chants of “Equal pay for equal work!”
They were joined by colleagues at Mount Sinai Morningside and West, who gathered outside their Manhattan hospitals last month to voice their own concerns about pay and working conditions.