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Public Hospital Nurses Invoke a Long Dormant Agreement in Bargaining for Pay Raise

Nurses at Health + Hospitals earn on average $12,000 less than their private sector counterparts. An unused clause on the books could change that.

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In January, dozens of public hospital nurses rallied for better working conditions in front of the Health + Hospitals central office in the Financial District.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

As the city’s public hospital nurses ramp up contract talks, union leaders are looking to enforce a dormant agreement not invoked since the 1990s that links their salaries with counterparts in the private sector. 

That could net a big pay raise for the 9,000-member workforce, which is represented by the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA).

Under an agreement reached with the administration of former mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 1995, public hospital nurses agreed to waive a clause that would bring their salaries within $1,000 of “the average basic entrance salary of Staff Nurse” at more than a dozen private-sector facilities, including Mount Sinai and Columbia-Presbyterian hospitals.

That deal has held sway ever since. In each of the last six collective bargaining agreements, the parity clause was “suspended for the term of the agreement.”

But now, public hospital nurses say, their salaries lag behind private sector nurses by an average of $12,000.

“Parity has always been a part of the contract. So now we need to reinstate it and we need the city to negotiate fairly with us and give us a fair and equitable contract,” said Lincoln Hospital nurse Sonia Lawrence, who sits on the union’s bargaining committee.

In past talks, according to union leaders, Health + Hospitals (H+H) nurses were willing to look past salary disparity issues because their healthcare and pension benefits were seen as a more generous package they could always count on. 

But nurses who spoke with THE CITY said that those benefits, which long drew nurses to stay in the public sector, just aren’t cutting it anymore. They specifically invoked concerns over a planned shift to Medicare Advantage, which would increase health care costs for city retirees. 

“The clause was waived before, because we looked at it in terms of the health benefits, which kind of balanced it out a little bit for us with the private sector,” Lawrence said. “It was not so much about the pay then, but the long-term effects of having good health benefits when you retire. But all that is no longer here.”

Christopher Miller, a spokesperson for H+H, said in a statement that the agency “is grateful for the hard work, dedication, and sacrifice our highly-skilled nurses make every day. We look forward to negotiating a new contract with NYSNA and welcome new opportunities to strengthen our partnership with NYSNA and the nurses who are so essential to our mission and our System’s success.”

Tough Fiscal Outlook

The agreement covering nurses across the city’s 11 public hospitals expires on Thursday. Though those nurses receive the same benefits as other public sector workers, their union does not necessarily follow the pattern set by the city’s largest unions because Health + Hospitals is a public-private corporation, union sources said.

Though NYSNA followed pattern bargaining in some negotiations, it has broken away in some contracts in order to secure higher wages.

In 2019, for example, it broke from the pattern set by District Council 37, the city’s largest public sector union, to secure raises 0.25% above the pattern for the four-year contract, plus additional raises for certain titles.

Nurses’ demands for raises could be tough given the city’s fiscal outlook. City Hall still has not provided clear answers about how it will fund raises for the public sector workforce. Meanwhile, the office of the state comptroller Tom DiNapoli last week projected a budget gap of $13.9 billion for the five boroughs through fiscal year 2027. 

“For a discussion of parity with the private sector, it is important to consider salary and the value of benefits; the City offers very generous benefits and these need to be accounted for when assessing parity in compensation,” said Ana Champeny, vice president for research at the fiscal watchdog Citizens Budget Commission. 

High Turnover

NYSNA is also looking to private sector standards to secure improved staffing ratios for their members. 

This January, a stalemate over safe staffing standards led more than 7,000 nurses at Mount Sinai and Montefiore to walk off the job for three days, sending hospital administrators scrambling to keep facilities running and vulnerable patients safe. 

Those nurses secured commitments from management to fill vacant positions. As part of its agreement with NYSNA, Montefiore also agreed to pay fines to nurses for failing to comply with safe staffing ratios. 

State law prohibits New York public sector workers, including nurses, from striking.

Even as the state has made broad efforts to remedy nurse staffing shortages, nurses say it is chronic understaffing that has plunged H+H nursing staff morale to an all-time low.

“There is a very high turnover,” said Bellevue Hospital surgical ICU nurse Mary Blaize-Williams. “Even our experienced nurses are leaving because they’re frustrated at the situation.”

Hospitals, including H+H, supplement staff during shortages by hiring agency or travel nurses, independent contractors who bounce from hospital to hospital for months at a time and can earn two to three times as much as staff nurses.

In any given 12.5-hour shift in her unit, Blaize-Williams said, roughly 70% of nurses — six out of eight — are travel nurses.

NYSNA’s next bargaining session with the city Office of Labor Relations is scheduled for March 7. Its first, a preliminary session, was held on Feb. 14.

“H+H nurses were there during the pandemic, front and center: We lost some of our members, we had to fight for our PPE, we stood up to the pandemic, got the city vaccinated, got people back to normal,” said Lawrence. “We deserve to be paid better.”

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