NYC public nurses declare fight for increased pay, staffing issues in upcoming contract

Photo: Max Parrott

Its contract might not expire until March next year, but New York’s public nurses union just launched its new contract campaign with a pandemic’s worth of workplace demands and a sense of urgency.

A group of vocal nurses from the New York State Nurses Association rallied with the support of key elected officials outside City Hall on Thursday to kick off the union’s campaign for a new contract.

Chief among the demands of the union representing 9,000 public sector nurses at all the city’s Health+Hospitals are pay equity and staffing levels.

“You taught the world how to treat Covid-19 and have rightfully earned its respect and eternal gratitude, but words and gestures, my friends, are not nearly enough. What our nurses deserve and demand is a fair contract: safe workplaces, adequate staffing levels and the proper resources,” said Council Speaker Adriene Adams.

The end of the contract marks the first time since the pandemic that the city’s public sector nurses have a chance to negotiate with the city. Now after making their heroic life-saving effort throughout the COVID-19 era, the union is turning its attention to address understaffing and underfunding — this time for the first time in coordination with a state law that mandates each hospital adhere to a set of safe nurse staffing ratios that a body consisting of management and nurses have agreed upon at each hospital.

Despite the newly mandated staffing levels, many nurses continue to report instances where those regulations go unenforced, according to NYSNA spokesperson Kristi Barnes. One part of contract negotiation will involve fighting for enforcement mechanisms to ensure adherence to the new agreements.

“It is widely accepted that safe staffing saves lives, yet H+H nurses are forced daily to undertake patient ratios that are clinically unsafe and are in direct violation of our staffing laws. So many of our experienced nurses are tired and giving up,” said NYSNA Director at Large, Sonia Lawrence, a registered nurse at Health+Hospitals/Lincoln.

Photo: Max Parrott

Another key factor that affects staff retention: pay. Many of the nurses on the steps of city hall touted “pay equity” signs and chanted for fair pay, demanding that the city increase the wages of nurses in the public sector average, which the union says are on average $14,000 less per year than nurses in the private sector.

The problem has led to the worst staff retention that NYSNA First Vice President and registered nurse Judith Cutchin said she’s seen in her 31 years in the health profession.

The union was joined by around a dozen members of the City Council who pledged to stand with its members as they enter contract negotiations with the city.

“Today this Council is standing proudly with the workers of this city who put their bodies on the line to care for us. We stand with NYSNA. We will always stand with [them]. And when you see people dressed in red on the steps of this city hall, you know that we mean business,” said Council Member Carmen De La Rosa Chair of the Committee on Civil Service and Labor.

Photo: Max Parrott