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Thousands of nurses in New York City began striking today for a fair contract

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Thousands of nurses began striking today at two of New York City's biggest hospitals, Montefiore Medical Center and Mount Sinai Hospital. The strikes have already disrupted patient care, but nurses say they won't return to work until they get a fair contract. We're now going to speak with Caroline Lewis, a health care reporter at WNYC. Hi, Caroline.

CAROLINE LEWIS, BYLINE: Hi.

SUMMERS: So, Caroline, what are nurses at these hospitals fighting for?

LEWIS: Well, you know, pay increases and health benefits are both on the table. But the biggest sticking point here, and what nurses say is most important, is better staffing. So both of these hospitals are offering salary increases of nearly 20% over three years. And that's similar to what other New York City hospitals have offered that have managed to reach contract deals and avoid a strike in recent days. But the nurses' union says that these remaining hospitals have so far refused to commit to the concrete, nurse-to-patient staffing ratios that they're asking for. And so that's really what's holding up these talks.

SUMMERS: So the staffing issues that we're talking about here, are they new, are these a consequence of the pandemic, or are these existing issues?

LEWIS: Well, I think understaffing has been a chronic issue at some hospitals. And nurses have long talked about how that can endanger patient care. But these challenges have definitely been exacerbated by the pandemic. A lot of nurses have left the profession altogether or have left their hospitals in favor of more lucrative travel or temporary nursing positions. And hospitals now have to compete with those wages when they're trying to recruit and retain permanent nurses. And they're - you know, as it stands, there's currently hundreds of unfilled nursing positions at both Montefiore and Mount Sinai.

SUMMERS: When I hear you say hundreds of unfilled nursing positions, it makes me wonder how patient care has been impacted by these strikes. Can you tell us about that?

LEWIS: Yeah. So, you know, both of these hospitals, you know, are bringing in temporary workers during the strikes, which, you know, can be very expensive. But there's still a big disruption to patient care. You know, both of these hospitals began postponing elective surgeries in the days leading up to the strikes and began discharging as many patients as they could or, you know, transferring patients. Mount Sinai said that it was transferring its neonatal intensive care unit, you know, patients like newborns, to other facilities to keep them safe. Montefiore said it was rescheduling outpatient visits. So, you know, there is a big disruption, and the city has said that it's working to reroute ambulances so that they take patients to other hospitals.

SUMMERS: And, Caroline, where do talks stand now? Is there an end in sight?

LEWIS: Well, as of midday today, talks were in progress at Montefiore, but they were stalled at Mount Sinai. You know, Mount Sinai had said that the nurses' union left the negotiating table late last night, and the talks still have not resumed. But nurses on the picket line seemed energized. You know, they said they were sad that it had come to this but thought it was necessary to protect patients in the long run.

SUMMERS: Health care reporter Caroline Lewis of WNYC. Caroline, thank you so much.

LEWIS: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDERSON .PAAK SONG, "FIRE IN THE SKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Caroline Lewis