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New York Nurses Strike for More Staff & Better Pay as Hospital CEOs Make Millions, Cut Charity Care

StoryJanuary 11, 2023
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We speak with one of the 7,000 nurses on strike now in New York City at two hospital systems that account for more than a quarter of all hospital beds in the city, and a journalist who has documented how hospital CEOs are boosting their own pay by millions of dollars while slashing charity care. The strike began Monday after nurses failed to reach a new contract agreement with Mount Sinai Hospital and Montefiore Medical Center, with higher wages and better staffing among their main demands. “If we do not address this, we will continue to see nurses leaving the workforce because of unsafe staffing,” says Sasha Winslow, a striking nurse at Montefiore Medical Center. The Lever’s Matthew Cunningham-Cook details his investigation into how hospital CEOs have received millions in raises and perks while medical staff have been pushed to the breaking point during COVID.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Here in New York City, over 7,000 nurses are entering their third day of a strike at two major hospital systems that account for more than a quarter of all hospital beds in the city. They began striking Monday after failing to reach a new contract agreement with Mount Sinai Hospital and Montefiore Medical Center over demands for higher wages and better staffing. The two systems have more than 1,200 nurse vacancies between them.

This is New York State Nurses Association President Nancy Hagans speaking from the picket line Monday.

NANCY HAGANS: Nurses don’t want to strike. We would rather be inside taking care of our patients, but safely, in a safe manner, not the condition they have us working for the past five, 10 years. Enough is enough, Sinai! Enough is enough!

AMY GOODMAN: Some nurses have shared job postings that offer visiting, non-union nurses $300 an hour to cross the picket line — more than five times the pay for a staff nurse. The nurses are also denouncing the inhumane treatment of patients, as some have been forced to receive medical care in hospital hallways due to overcrowding.

Meanwhile, the New York State Nurses Association urged people to continue seeking the care they need, writing, quote, “We appreciate solidarity from our patients — but going into the hospital to get the care you need is NOT crossing our strike line … We are out here so we can provide [better patient care to you]!”

For more, we’re joined by one of those nurses on strike, Sasha Winslow, high-risk labor delivery nurse at Montefiore Medical Center. Also with us, Matthew Cunningham-Cook, researcher and writer for The Lever, whose new piece is headlined “As Nurses Strike, Hospital CEOs Pocket Millions.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Sasha, let’s begin with you. Describe the scene outside. Montefiore is in the Bronx, and Mount Sinai is in East Harlem on the Upper East Side. Can you describe the scene there and what you’re demanding?

SASHA WINSLOW: The scene at Montefiore, where I am located, is full of nurses who are prideful and also excited that we have come to the strike, because of the demands that are very important to us, which is staffing ratios and enforcement of those ratios with concrete language that makes sense, and that those languages that are going to be put in will hopefully come with penalties to the hospitals.

I want to correct, as far as happiness goes: This is historic for many of the nurses at Monte, some who have been there for 40 years and have not experienced this before. This is the first for me. It’s crowded outside. It’s cold. But we are dedicated to our patients, and patient care is our priority.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Sasha, I’d like to ask you — during the height of the pandemic, nurses and other hospital workers were constantly being celebrated as essential workers, and hospitals got huge amounts of aid from the federal government. But anybody who’s been in a hospital, especially in a hospital emergency room these days, knows that almost all of them are woefully understaffed. Could you talk about how these staffing levels affect your ability to deliver good care?

SASHA WINSLOW: So, I was a nurse who cared for patients during COVID. Staffing issues have existed before COVID. COVID only exposed to the public what we have experienced for years, and it just worsened.

When you are caring for patients, you want to provide them with the utmost dignity and respect, and also being able to spend time with them. Patients have questions. Patients are scared. This is a very vulnerable time for them. And when you are understaffed, you are unable to provide that one-to-one care with the patient and addressing their needs, or with their families, if they’re present, addressing their concerns. I see and know nurses who work in the emergency room who are caring for one to 15 to 20 patients. That doesn’t take into account the acuity of the patients, some who are ICU patients who are waiting to be transferred, med-surg patients who are waiting for beds and sometimes are in the ER for 24 to 48 hours.

This is a public health emergency across the nation, because there is such a shortage and a need for nurses at the bedside, particularly in New York. We are, you know, a community that is filled with many people from around the world. And we need to be better, you know, better at communicating with our staff and communicating with our community that this is what’s going on in the inside. And if we do not address this, we will continue to see nurses leaving the workforce because of unsafe staffing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you about executive compensation. Montefiore, like Mount Sinai, and many of these hospitals are supposedly nonprofit. They are supposed to serve a public good, therefore they don’t get taxed. But yet their executives make enormous salaries. Could you talk about your CEO, Dr. Philip Ozuah?

SASHA WINSLOW: So, yes, Montefiore and Mount Sinai are private, not-for-profit hospitals. They are tax-exempt. Unfortunately, our CNOs, our VPs of operations and our presidents of our hospitals make a lot of money, in the millions, particularly Dr. Ozuah. This is all within the New York Post and Crain’s newspapers. He made a profit in 2020 of $13 million, $8 million to $13 million. When I did my last report back in 2018, he profited $13 million and was also offered a bonus of $9 million and an early retirement package. And as we can see, he never retired.

So, we see the disparity when it comes to wages and corporate greed, where we have our, you know, high-level leaderships making tons of money, and the workers — the nurses, the CNAs, our housekeepers, our lab technicians, our X-ray technicians — are not making that type of money. So, you do see the imbalance of power and money in our hospitals.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s bring in Matthew Cunningham-Cook, who really investigated this for The Lever, his piece, “As Nurses Strike, Hospital CEOs Pocket Millions.” Can you talk about what you found in your investigation, Matthew?

MATTHEW CUNNINGHAM-COOK: Yeah. I think that one of the things that was really jarring for me is, it’s very uncommon for hospitals to give their executives first-class airfare and a chauffeur, and that’s what Montefiore does for at least one of its executives. They haven’t told us which one. We assume it’s Dr. Ozuah. But, yeah, and over the past decade, eight-and-a-half percent annualized wage increases for the CEO of Montefiore. Meanwhile, the highest kind of amount that nurses are getting in contract negotiations in New York City these days is 7%. And that’s just for one year. It will go down to 6 and 5% for the following years. Mount Sinai, similar kind of disparities at work, where they’ve had the same CEO for the past decade, 12-and-a-half percent annualized raises over that time.

So, yeah, it’s — and with this enormous growth in executive compensation, you see a decrease in the amount of free or discounted care provided to patients. So, Montefiore’s charity care has gone down by 23% in the decade, and Mount Sinai’s has gone down by 50% in the decade in terms of charity care spending as a percentage of total hospital expenses.

I think what it underscores is how these hospital CEOs are so disconnected from the reality of what’s happening on the ground. And despite the massive tax exemptions that they’re granted, they’re far more interested in lining their own pockets than in actually supporting the people who actually provide care.

Executives, people in the C-suite, don’t actually do anything related to patient care. They’re effectively parasites off of the nurses and the dedicated healthcare workers in New York City and across the country. But their compensation doesn’t reflect that fact at all. And it’s a huge problem, and I think it’s why you see this nurses’ strike, where — you know, I used to work for a nurses’ union for many years. Nurses don’t ever want to go on strike. It goes against the core of their being. And the slogan is, you know, “If nurses are on the outside, there’s something wrong on the inside.” And in this case, I think there’s something very seriously wrong about both Mount Sinai and Montefiore.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Matthew, I wanted to ask you about this — again, about this nonprofit issue with these hospital chains, which is what they are. They often have huge reserves of money and often have them invested offshore or have significant investments offshore in the Cayman Islands or other places, which are obviously tax havens. What have you found in your research on this?

MATTHEW CUNNINGHAM-COOK: Yeah, so, yeah, Mount Sinai reports that they have $68 million in investments in Central America, in the Caribbean region. That almost always means the Cayman Islands or Bermuda or other — or the British Virgin Islands or wherever, tend to be tax shelters. Montefiore has almost $200 million invested in hedge funds and in private equity.

And again, you know, this is coming as nurses are dealing with 20 patients in the ED. And it’s very straightforward to staff hospitals more effectively. It is possible. When California implemented nurse-to-patient ratios in 2004, the hospitals had spent a five-year legal battle trying to stop — the legislation initially passed in 1999, and the hospitals had spent a five-year legal and political battle attempting to stop the ratios from being implemented, saying that it would have been impossible for them to meet the ratios. Well, the ratios came in, and then they were there, because they raised nurse pay and benefits to be able to retain and attract qualified registered nurses to the bedside. So, it’s a very kind of straightforward issue of dollars and cents to adequately staff hospitals.

And so, when you have hundreds of millions of dollars, in Montefiore’s case, and tens of millions of dollars, in Mount Sinai’s case, invested in risky offshore entities, that is money that’s coming directly away from patient care at the bedside.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you also talk about this controversy over the New York governor, who just gave her State of the State address yesterday, after her election, Kathy Hochul, wanting to fill the opening for chief judge of New York, the New York state Court of Appeals, with Hector LaSalle, who’s backed rulings that support these corporations —

MATTHEW CUNNINGHAM-COOK: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — and suing union leaders?

MATTHEW CUNNINGHAM-COOK: Yeah, yeah. I mean, what the back story is, is about seven or eight years ago, the communications workers and Cablevision, which is owned by the Dolan family, were locked in a huge dispute over a first contract for a group of about 200 workers. And Cablevision was so mad at the union for organizing their workers that they actually decided to sue labor leaders. And Judge LaSalle was part of a panel that voted to allow that case to go forward, which is dangerous for a host of reasons, but in particular is this idea that you can take jurisdiction over labor relations away from the National Labor Relations Board, which is a sacrosanct tenet of U.S. labor relations policy for the last 85 years. And so — and it’s something, really, that I think you would see more from a Rand Paul-style judge than from a Democratic judge in New York state or a Democratic-aligned judge in New York state. So, yeah, it’s very interesting that Governor Hochul is making this nomination at this time.

I think it’s also interesting that she pushed the union and the hospitals to go to binding arbitration. Typically, you know, if she had really wanted to prevent a strike, she could have stepped in herself and attempted to arbitrate the dispute, or directed her health commissioner to step in and arbitrate the dispute. But she didn’t do that. Instead, she was advocating that the union agree to an arbitrator that could implement a contract for five, six years that doesn’t meet the demands of nurses, making the problems substantially worse. So, I think, again, what it underscores is, is, unfortunately, Democratic leadership in New York state really seem to be disconnected — especially Governor Hochul seems to be disconnected — from the reality of what workers are facing on the ground.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to ask Sasha Winslow: What’s the status of talks right now? You’re in the second day of your strike. What are you asking the public to do? And — I’m sorry, third day of your strike. And what are you asking the public to do? And is the administration responding to any of your demands?

SASHA WINSLOW: So, in the third day of strike, our executive committee are continuing to have the talks with management. The issue lies in the enforcement of staffing-nurse ratio. That is a huge issue that, surprisingly, management and our leaders in the hospital are giving such backlash to. And this is something that’s very important. This is something that impacts how we provide care, and impacts our community.

The support that would be very helpful for our community is writing your letters. If you were a patient at Montefiore, how was your care? Was there any delay in care, any missed care that you experienced because of staffing issues? We saw that work in California when the law was passed in 2004, that the community rallied with the nurses by their testimonies and by their letters of their experiences in the hospitals.

So, this is important for us, and this is why we are striking. We are fighting for staff-to-nurse ratios and enforcement language that would hold hospitals accountable for not adhering to staffing ratios. That is needed to protect the patients.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Matthew Cunningham-Cook, we have less than a minute, but you wrote a story on a somewhat different subject called “Crypto Bros Want Your 401(k),” in which you note the despite FTX’s collapse, a lawsuit is trying to force regulators to allow crypto into the retirement market. Lay out what you found, in this last minute.

MATTHEW CUNNINGHAM-COOK: Yeah. What we found is that one of Sam Bankman-Fried’s backers, this venture capital firm Ribbit Capital, is also backing this company, ForUsAll, a 401(k) services company, that is suing the Biden Labor Department for a guidance that recommended against crypto investments in 401(k)s. And I think what the case really underscores is how the crypto market cannot survive without a massive influx of new cash from ordinary, unsophisticated investors, like 401(k) holders. And, yeah, the case is currently worming its way through federal courts but, I think, comes along with this push for pro-crypto regulation coming from folks like Senator Cynthia Lummis, who are really just trying to grease the wheels for a large amount of ordinary Americans to put their money into a highly risky, highly speculative asset with no underlying value.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we are going to link to your pieces at democracynow.org. Matthew Cunningham-Cook writes for The Lever. We’ll link to his piece, “Hospital CEOs Pocket Millions,” “The Battle over the Side-Letter Scam,” and “Crypto Bros Want Your 401(k).” We also want to thank Sasha Winslow, striking high-risk labor delivery nurse at Montefiore Medical Center.

That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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