The Queens doctors — some who are immigrants with extensive experience at their home countries — threatened to strike.
They can no longer afford to live in the communities they serve.
During the first wave of Covid-19, Queens hospitals were on the frontlines of the pandemic. Although they were celebrated as essential workers, some first-year physician residents were only making between $15 and $17 an hour while they routinely worked 80-hour weeks.
Nearly three years later, about 300 resident physicians and fellows at Jamaica and Flushing Hospitals have won a new contract after threatening to walk off the job if their demands for better wages and improved working conditions were not met.
Last night the residents, who are majority immigrants and are members of the Committee of Interns and Residents (CIR) narrowly avoided a strike in a last-minute, midnight deal with the hospital’s owner MediSys Health Network Sunday night.
After months of often tense negotiations, MediSys agreed to many of the physicians’ demands, like 18 percent salary increases over three years as well as reduced patient loads, extra pay for extra shifts, meal allowances, hazard pay, six weeks of fully paid medical/family leave, $30 per ride transportation stipend and $1,200 paid orientation for new residents.
On April 26, physician interns and residents at Jamaica and Flushing Hospitals vowed to go on a five-day strike beginning on May 15 if they could not reach an agreement with MediSys.
Several days later, on May 3 resident physicians at Elmhurst Hospital, which is part of Mount Sinai’s residency program and also belongs to the same union, announced they too would be going on strike if management continued to bargain in bad faith.
The strike would have paralyzed two of the busiest hospitals in Queens and would have been the first time New York doctors walked off the job in 33 years.
Roots of Discontent
With high workloads and the cost of living soaring in New York, the doctors say they can’t afford to live in the communities they serve.
“When you’re making so little money and you have so little time on your hands, it’s very hard to have a family, to tuck in your kids at night,” said Dr. Neha Ravi, 29, who practices family medicine at Jamaica Hospital. “Everything is more difficult when you have neither the time nor the money.”
Ravi, whose family is from South India, only started working at Jamaica Hospital in July, yet she often works 80 hours a week but only makes a salary of a little under $68,000 a year.
She says that the residents are given dozens of patients, well beyond what is required by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME), the accrediting body which governs all graduate medical training programs for physicians in the country. The council mandates first-year residents be responsible for the ongoing care of no more than 10 patients at a time.
Dr. Uchenna Chinakwe, 35, also works at Jamaica Hospital as a first-year resident in internal medicine. Prior to his residency, Chinakwe worked for nearly 10 years as a doctor in his native Nigeria. Since beginning his residency he often worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week.
Despite his long hours, Dr. Chinakwe says that he makes $18 an hour, which he said might have been fine before the pandemic but is unacceptable now.
“The issue is when you look at your overall pay it’s not reflective of the overall situation, which was understandable because the contracts were drawn up three years ago,” he said. “But the world is a very different place than three years ago.”
When viewing the salary of MediSys Health Network’s management, the pay disparity is even more striking. Bruce Flanz, MediSys President and Chief Executive is paid a salary of $1,615,394, a far cry from what a first-year resident makes at one of his hospitals.
Chinakwe left Nigeria, in part, because of the low pay doctors were being paid and the poor conditions that he had to work under. Thinking things would be better in the U.S. he was surprised to find some of the same conditions he thought he left behind.
“Where I come from, pay is a big issue,” he said. “A lot of doctors are leaving Nigeria for greener pastures because the government doesn’t invest in healthcare. It draws eerie parallels for me and frankly, it’s a little embarrassing.”
At Elmhurst Hospital, the resident physicians are plagued by many of the same issues. Although the interns and residents work at Elmhurst Hospital, they are actually employed by Mount Sinai. Yet, they are not paid the same salary as the interns and residents who work at Mount Sinai’s campuses.
Currently, the salary for a first-year resident at Mount Sinai’s campus is $75,186, which is set to increase to $79,697 in July. Mount Sinai employed first-year residents who work at Elmhurst make $68,355.
Dr. Tanathun Kajornsakchai, 27, who’s an immigrant from Thailand, believes that because the majority of residents at Elmhurst Hospital are immigrants, they are being taken advantage of.
“It was pretty heartbreaking as we worked hand in hand with the other Mount Sinai residents,” he said. “We interact with them day by day. Mount Sinai is treating us as second-class residents, as second-class doctors.”
Demands Not Being Met
When negotiations began in November, the union not only demanded a substantial pay increase that was in line with the cost of living in New York City but also hazard pay, a transportation stipend so they can return home after work safely, and safe patient staffing ratios.
But for months MediSys wouldn’t yield to the union’s demands. The union claims management was threatening to retaliate against individual residents, which led them to file seven unfair labor practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board between February and April.
MediSys spokesperson, Michael Hinck, said last week that the company had offered the union an 18-percent increase over three years but blamed the union for the deadlock.
But with an agreement finally reached that addresses not only their monetary concerns but also their concerns about high patient loads, Dr. Ravi hopes that the new contract will be a win for patients as well as physicians.
“This agreement is one that will ensure that our class and future generations of resident doctors at MediSys are protected in the event of a public health emergency while prioritizing both the community’s health care needs and our training,” she said.
Another Doctor Strike Still Brewing
As for the struggle at Elmhurst, the resident’s contract expired in July. Since then they have spent months trying to negotiate with Mount Sinai, hoping to secure the same benefits as the other residents at Mount Sinai’s campuses. They also want the same benefits such as educational benefits, paid holidays, and paternity leave.
Although no date for a strike has been set, according to Dr. Kajornsakchai, management has continued to refuse to negotiate in good faith.
“We want to match our Mount Sinai counterparts, which doesn’t seem too outrageous. However Mount Sinai has been rejecting all of these proposals and at one point delayed coming to the table for four months,” he said.
Mount Sinai did not respond to Documented’s request for comment.