After several days on strike, nurses at two hospitals in Nw York City went back to work January 12 after the hospitals agreed to the nurses’ demands to hire more nurses to relieve the understaffing. The strike was less about pay (the two sides had already agreed to a 19.1 pay raise over three years) and more about the chronic nurse understaffing at hospitals that has resulted in higher income for hospitals at the expense of impossible work loads for nurses and sharply reduced care for their patients. Seven thousand nurses at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan and Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx had gone out on strike January 8 after talks with the hospital management broke down. The nurses are members of the New York State Nurses Association, their elected union bargaining agent.

They joined thousands more nurses from around the country who are resorting to labor actions to overcome what has become standard practice for hospitals – not hiring enough nurses to adequately perform patient care, causing very difficult working conditions. ” We are not out here for wages,” said Lorena Vivas, a nurse  for 19 years, on the picket line. “We are out here because we want patient safety.” Joining them for a while on the picket line were New York State Attorney General Letitia James and Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine.

The union said that the two hospitals have failed to fill some 1,200 nursing positions. ” Our No. 1 issuer is a crisis of staffing,” Nurses Association President Nancy Hagans declared. “It is an issue that our employers have ignored.”

Under the tentative agreement, which still has to be ratified by the union membership, in addition to the salary increase, the hospitals agreed to a nurse-to-patient ratio with an enforcement mechanism. As of this writing, the exact ratio has not been made public. The hospital committed itself to create new programs for outreach and incentives to attract more nurses. Other details 0f the proposed contract remain hazy.

Hospitals refusing to hire an adequate number of nurses existed even before the Covid pandemic but the disease only made it far worse. It has resulted in nurses leaving the profession in droves around the country, sharply exacerbating the problem. The union says that at Mount Sinai, emergency room nurses have to care for up to 18 patients at a time. Nurses at Montefiore claim the same situation exists there. Existing staff-to-patient ratios are not enforced.

The situation has grown with the increased corporatization of hospitals. While technically non-profit, hospitals have increasingly behaved like profit-making corporations. At the end of September 2022, Montefiore was sitting on $1.3 billion in cash and investments, while Mount Sinai had $2.6 billion at the end of 2020. They have massive Wall Street and foreign investments with enormous profits and hefty executive compensation packages.

Tax filings for 2020 show that Montefiore invested  $199 million in “limited partnerships” like madge funds and private equity. Mount Sinai reported $68 million in investments in “Central America and the Caribbean,” which typically are in tax shelters like the Cayman Islands.

They also sport huge executive salaries. Mount Sinai CEO Kenneth Davis made $5.6 million in 2019, the last year for which complete tax records are available.  Montefiore CEO Philip Ozuah made $7.4 million in 2020.. Montefiore provided an unnamed executive (or executives) with a chauffeur and first-class airfare in 2020.

In filings with the IRS, Mount Sinai disclosed that 15 executives made more than $1 million annually in 2019. Ten executives at Montefiore each made more tan $1.5 million in 2020.

Meanwhile, as executive compensation and profits soared, charity care at Mount Sinai has been reduced by nearly half as a percentage of its total expenses over the past decade.. Charity care provides free or discounted care to those in poverty, a key justification for the massive tax breaks nonprofit hospitals receive. Montefiore registered a  23 percent reduction in charity care spending as a percentage of expenses during the same period.

Against this record of massive profits and huge executive compensation packages, the demands of the nurses pale by comparison.

NY  Times, 1/9; The Lever, 1//10; NY Times, print edition, 1/13