By Sabina Mollot
As Mount Sinai continues its downsizing of Beth Israel’s facilities in preparation for a new hospital to eventually open on Second Avenue, nurses and other employees within the union 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East have been bracing for possible cuts to their benefits.
On Thursday, July 12, union members picketed outside hospitals throughout the city that have employees from 1199SEIU, including Beth Israel on First Avenue and 16th Street and Mount Sinai Downtown in Union Square, formerly Beth Israel’s Phillips Ambulatory Care Center.
At each facility, over a dozen nurses and other union employees marched or stood outside while chanting and holding signs starting shortly before noon.
“Up with the union, down with the bosses!” and “union busting is disgusting” were a couple of the chants shouted from behind a barricade on First Avenue.
A nurse at the Union Square facility who’s worked for the hospital over a decade said she’s used to fighting in this manner every three years whenever the contract is about to expire. However, this time, she said things were different because it’s the first time administrators are planning to stop paying into employees’ pensions and also want them to start contributing to their health benefits, which she — and other employees — acknowledged were very good.
However, the nurse said base pay for nurses at Beth Israel is lower than pay at other hospitals within the Mount Sinai network, and she doesn’t believe employees will get the raise they’re hoping for to compensate for this.
“We’d rather have the benefits,” said the Union Square nurse, who asked to remain anonymous, “because benefits are expensive.” Another new development, said the nurse, was that employees these days “float” between different Mount Sinai facilities in the area, instead of being stationed at just the ambulatory building.
Both she and employees picketing blocks away on First Avenue also complained that since the news of the downsizing, they’ve been made to do more work for the same pay due to staffers leaving for other hospitals and not being replaced.
Prior to the picketing, an emergency room nurse at Beth Israel told Town & Village she’s left her shifts in the evenings only to return in the morning, 12 hours later, to see the same patients still waiting to be seen.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, you’re still here?’ I’m buying breakfast for people because I’m so sorry. It’s so embarrassing.”
Part of the problem is that former patients of St. Vincent’s and LICH have been increasing the patient load at Beth Israel, and many of those people don’t have insurance. Patients also haven’t been thrilled when told they have to be transported to other in-network locations because the departments they need treatment from are no longer at First Avenue.
Former dietary services worker Jacynth Stewart, who recently retired, commented during picketing that “a lot of offices have closed. It’s like a ghost town. It’s all uptown now. Everybody’s leaving because they’re stressed out.”
Some nurses have chosen to leave for other Mount Sinai hospitals like the flagship one on Madison Avenue and 98th Street. However, because there’s a different union for those employees, others remained at Beth Israel out of concern their pensions would be affected and their seniority lost.
Still, according to the emergency room nurse, sticking around hasn’t just been a monetary decision. She wants to remain in the community, preferring the culture and vibe of the Stuyvesant Town and Lower East Side as opposed to uptown Manhattan. Even if that means a more uncertain future as operations on First Avenue wind down with departments, like maternity and cardiac surgery having shifted to other locations.
She said there was no plan for a walkout if negotiations come to a halt and the current contract doesn’t expire until the end of September.
Mount Sinai referred questions about the picketing to the League of Voluntary Hospitals and Homes of New York (LVHH). The league represents 90 nonprofit medical centers, including hospitals and nursing homes, in the current labor negotiations with 1199SEIU.
In an emailed statement, a league spokesman told us that the pension fund will “remain intact.”
“We respect the right of 1199 members to engage in informational picketing with proper notice,” the league said. “This is not a strike and will not interfere with normal operations. All League members will continue to provide the excellent care that New Yorkers depend on.
“The League has been clear that we want to protect the pension fund – making sure that the pension benefits that 1199 members receive – and count on to be there when they retire – will remain intact.”
Mount Sinai has begun the process of downsizing Beth Israel, which currently has over 800 beds, in order to open a new, smaller location with 70 beds. The First Avenue Bernstein Pavilion adjacent to the main hospital, which is home to the hospital’s methadone/opioid treatment program and has 150 behavioral therapy beds, will remain open as well.
The First Avenue main campus, the Linsky Pavilion, will eventually be sold, though Mount Sinai has invested $500 million in other facilities, like Union Square. First Avenue’s Gilman Hall, a building that was formerly home to the Beth Israel’s resident doctors, and the adjoining small buildings also owned by the hospital were sold last year to a California developer who hasn’t announced plans for the properties. The adjoining buildings, which formerly housed the hospital’s Karpas Health Information Center, are slated to be demolished.