Resident Doctors Go on Strike at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens
More than 150 trainee doctors went on strike Monday morning at Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens, the first physician strike at a New York City hospital in more than 30 years.
Chief among their grievances is the fact that they are generally paid less working at a public hospital in Queens, where they care for poor patients, than their counterparts are paid at wealthier Manhattan institutions.
Although the strike is relatively small and not expected to result in major disruptions to care, it is heavy on symbolism. Some three years ago, Elmhurst was among the first hospitals in the United States to be overwhelmed by Covid-19.
Descriptions of panicked, gasping patients, chest compressions and refrigerated morgue trucks — scenes one Elmhurst doctor described as “apocalyptic” — served as a warning for the rest of the country.
Now the striking young doctors, many of whom were still in medical school in 2020, say the pandemic has encouraged activism and organizing — and a growing willingness to challenge the low pay young trainee doctors receive for working long and grueling hours.
Trainee doctors who work at the city’s public hospitals have often been reluctant to rock the boat in the past. Many were born and educated abroad and are in the United States on a visa.
“As international residents, we’re always so thankful — we feel very lucky to be here,” said Dr. Sarah Hafuth, a leader among the resident physicians, who comes from Canada. She added: “The pandemic was an eye-opener. Physicians really started to question our worth and asking, ‘Are we getting the support we need, given the situation we’re in?’”
At Elmhurst, residents had more difficulty obtaining hazard pay during the pandemic than residents at some Manhattan hospitals. That angered many resident physicians and hazard pay remains one of the issues driving the strike, one union delegate, a psychiatry resident, Dr. Tanathun Kajornsakchai said on Friday.
Physician strikes are a rarity in the United States. The last one in New York City, according to the Committee of Interns and Residents, the union organizing this week’s strike, was in 1990 when young doctors at a Bronx hospital went on strike for nine days. They ultimately won a pay raise and stricter enforcement of rules against working more than 12 hours in a row.
Although the striking doctors work at Elmhurst, they are employed by the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, which has its headquarters in Manhattan.
Doctors at many of New York’s 11 public hospitals are employed by major Manhattan hospitals and medical schools—the result of longstanding “affiliation” agreements between the public hospital system and the city’s leading medical institutions.
That means that the city’s public hospital system, NYC Health + Hospitals, is largely a bystander in the negotiations.
“Our medical residents play a critical role in patient care, and we are hopeful they will reach a labor agreement soon to avoid a strike,” the public hospital system said in a statement. “In the meantime, we are making all the necessary preparations to ensure uninterrupted access to patient care services if there is a strike.”
Chief among the residents’ complaints is that their counterparts working at Mount Sinai’s main hospital, opposite Central Park on East 98th Street, make considerably more.
Dr. Hafuth said that first-year residents assigned to Elmhurst made about $68,000 a year, while the residents working at Mount Sinai’s main campus made $75,000. The Manhattan resident physicians also have several perks, Dr. Hafuth said, including that they can take a car service home at night.
“Our patient load is all the same,” she said. “We see the same medical pathologies, the same complexity. So we’re at a point where we’re quite frustrated about why Mount Sinai is willing to pay the residents on the Upper East Side more than us.”
A spokeswoman for Mount Sinai, Lucia Lee, said in a statement that the health system was “committed to working toward an equitable and reasonable resolution that is in the best interest for both our residents at Elmhurst as well as for the Mount Sinai Health System. “
The strike comes after more than 10 months of contract negotiations between Mount Sinai and the Committee of Interns and Residents, the union that represents the resident doctors. Mount Sinai said that the union rejected its “last, best and final offer” — which, according to Mount Sinai, would have provided for raises of between 5 and 7 percent a year, for the next three years.
As many as 172 doctors went on strike at 7 am Monday, drawn from the departments of internal medicine, pediatrics and psychiatry.
“Our dedicated staff are ready to take on extra shifts, and we will be able to mobilize clinicians from other health system hospitals if necessary,” said the statement from the public hospital system.