More than 150 trainee doctors went on strike Monday at Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens, the first physician strike at a hospital in New York City 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.
Though 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 say the experience of the pandemic has encouraged activism and organizing — and a growing willingness to challenge the relatively low salaries that resident physicians, as doctors in training are called, receive for working long and grueling hours.
Residents 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 early in the pandemic than those at some Manhattan hospitals, angering many. Hazard pay remains one of the issues driving the strike, one union delegate, a fourth-year psychiatry resident, Dr. Tanathun Kajornsakchai, said.
“It’s very empowering for us all to be fighting for the same cause, fighting for fairness, and fighting for parity,” Dr. Kajornsakchai said in a phone interview Monday from the picket line.
Dr. Kajornsakchai was already working at Elmhurst in 2020, though most of his fellow strikers on the picket line were still in medical school back then.
One of the signs on the picket line referenced the 7 p.m. nightly cheer — a brief tradition when New Yorkers opened their windows to clap and bang pots and pans to express thanks to front-line workers.
“Elmhurst was Covid epicenter,” the sign read. “Now we’re 7 p.m. clapping back.”
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 doctors at a Bronx hospital went on strike for nine days. They won a pay raise and stricter enforcement of rules against working more than 12 hours in a row.
Though the striking doctors work at Elmhurst, they are employed by the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in Manhattan.
Doctors at many of New York’s 11 public hospitals are affiliated with major Manhattan hospitals and medical schools, the result of longstanding contracts between the city’s public hospital system and the city’s leading medical institutions.
That means that the public hospital system, NYC Health + Hospitals, is largely a bystander in the negotiations. Both the system and Mount Sinai said they had taken steps to minimize interruptions to patient care.
Dr. I. Michael Leitman, the dean of graduate medical education at Mount Sinai, said that some Mount Sinai residents had signed up to work Elmhurst shifts during the strike.
Among the Elmhurst residents’ complaints is that their counterparts working at Mount Sinai’s main hospital, on East 98th Street, make considerably more.
Dr. Hafuth said that first-year Elmhurst residents made about $68,000 a year, while residents working at Mount Sinai’s main campus made $75,000.
“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 began at 7 a.m. Monday, drawing resident physicians from the departments of internal medicine, pediatrics and psychiatry. Organizers have called for the strike to last five days and they estimated that more than 150 resident physicians are participating.
It 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.
Ms. Lee said that Mount Sinai’s most recent offer would have paid Elmhurst residents as much as their Mount Sinai counterparts. But Elmhurst residents rejected that characterization, saying the offer would not have put them on the same level. The offer provided for raises between 5 and 7 percent a year, for three years.