On Monday, Jan. 9, more than 7,000 nurses across New York City went on strike against two private New York City hospital systems: Mount Sinai and Montefiore Health System. The Mount Sinai system operates a hospital in Manhattan while Montefiore operates three in the Bronx. The New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) advocated for a better contract as staffing shortages left nurses overworked and burned out, and as a result, they say they were not able to adequately care for their patients.
Nurses demanded that the hospitals enforce safer staffing ratios and a raise in wages to improve nurse retention rates. On Thursday, Jan. 12, Mount Sinai and Montefiore nurses were given a new contract that includes raises totaling 19% over three years and “concrete enforceable safe staffing ratios.”
Nurses across the city are celebrating their victory.
Meliza Curray, 53, was one of the nurses who participated in the strike. With a posterboard in hand, she stood outside Mount Sinai Hospital on the Upper East Side rallying for a fairer contract. While some chose their career paths, Curray believes that nursing chose her.
Curray grew up in the Philippines and upon graduating high school in 1986, Curray did not know what she wanted to do. Her friend, who was about to take an exam for nursing school, convinced her to do the same. She was skeptical she would pass.
“That’s when I believed things happen for a reason because out of the two of us, I was the one who passed the entrance to the university and she didn’t. I thought ‘This was really meant for me,’” she says.
After getting her degree in the Philippines, she gained experience in the surgical nursing field. She then moved to the United States in 1992. The job of a nurse in the Philippines versus the United States was very different.
“[In the U.S.] in primary nursing, you really are the primary nurse. You do everything for the patient by yourself. Unlike in the Philippines, we do what we call functional nursing. One nurse is in charge of medications, others do vital signs, another IV fluids — it was a big difference,” she says.
Nevertheless, Curray quickly adjusted to how things are done here and gave each and every one of her patients her full attention and care. She spent a couple of years in forensics before moving to the Mount Sinai hospital in August 1999. She started off as a physiatric nurse, before becoming a mother-baby nurse in 2000 — where she has been since.
Curray says her job has gotten increasingly harder, especially after Covid. Since the pandemic, hospital stays for mothers delivering babies have gotten shorter and shorter. It is not enough time for Curray to help each patient with as much care as she would like to give them, and there are simply a lot more patients.
“Patients are staying in shorter terms, but then we also have to prepare them for this big transition in their lives. I mean it’s a big thing if you are a first-time mom, or a mom of three or four. There is an adjustment period and we have to prepare for this big change in their lives — there is so much to learn in so little time,” she says.
With a better staffing ratio, even if patients stay for a short time, nurses like Curray will be able to devote their full attention to them because they aren’t preoccupied with multiple patients that come and go rapidly, constantly.
“I was planning to retire in about seven years. But I thought, I do not think I could last another seven years in this kind of environment,” she says. “We are understaffed and the workflow has changed so much.”
Despite these challenges, Curray loves her job as a nurse, which is why she decided to strike.
“For some reason, I have this really big liking of babies, and I found my home in the mother-baby unit. I love the babies, even my patients tell me I am a baby whisperer. I am the go-to person for my floor,” she says. “In 2016, I even received a nursing excellence award.”
For her, the strike was always about patient care — she wants to give her patients the care they deserve.
Alyssa Wagenstein, 26, was also one of the nurses who was on strike. Unlike Curray, Wagenstein has been a nurse for a shorter period. She began working as a nurse at Mount Sinai in 2019 right after graduation and just before the pandemic started. For her, being a nurse at the mother-baby unit has been a lifelong dream.
“My mother was a nurse, so I have always been interested. I love pregnant people, I love babies. Ever since I was younger, I’ve always wanted to deliver babies,” she says. “I wanted to be in the room. I think it is such a miracle and it’s so exciting to be with people during that life changing moment. It’s really such an honor to me — I really love the job.”
However, for her, the job has always been a rush from one patient to the next. Her team has always been short-staffed and nurses have to deal with multiple patients at once. These conditions have made it difficult for the hospital to retain its nurses.
“I wanted to quit every single day at Mount Sinai. I wanted to quit. It was hard, stressful and an issue. It made me anxious and it was scary,” she says.
When she found out the news of the new agreement, she could not be more thrilled.
“We got our main thing that we were asking for which was strict language, enforcing nurse to patient ratios. It takes more accountability into the acuity of the patients because some patients require more attention and care than others,” she says.
Curray is also thrilled to see that her efforts pay off.
“I’m so happy, I am full of energy, I feel like the female version of Thor. Even though I’ve had like two to three hours of sleep, I am so energized,” Curray says.
Being on strike was not easy because the nurses were not being paid. Some nurses were already struggling, not knowing how they were going to pay their bills or how long the strike was going to last.
“We were all elated [when the strike ended] because we had a lot of concerns. There were nurses on my floor who don’t have help financially,” says Curray. “If I didn’t get paid, my husband could pick up the load, but there were some who are the sole income generator for their family.”
Curray had set up a fund for some of her coworkers which helped them for the few days they were not getting paid but the uncertainty of the strike made her anxious. Luckily, it did not last long.
“I was so worried about where I would get the money from for next week if we don’t go back to work. But God is good, like I said, you really just have to trust the process,” she says. “You don’t know how happy we are. I had been losing sleep because of the anxiety [surrounding] the contract and finally it ended.”
The good news came to the nurses at around 2 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 12. Many of the nurses were asleep and expected to go back to work the following day. Wagenstein was one of these nurses.
“I’m so excited. I’m very happy to be back at work, I am happy that we won. We showed our powers in numbers and we showed how strong our union could be. I’m just so happy to be back,” Wagentein says.
While the strike was short, it taught both Wagstein and Curray so much.
“The biggest thing I learned was the importance of solidarity. As long as you know people have your back you’re okay,” she says. “You will be okay.”
Wagenstein wants New Yorkers to remember that in the end, it was always about the patients.
“It was not about money. Nurses are not after money. It doesn’t matter who our patient is, we are making the same amount of money regardless. We really are looking out for the patients. As you guys can see, all those nurses came out. We didn’t get paid and we did it for a reason,” she says. “It wasn’t just for us to make more money because we could have gone to any other hospital. There were other options, but we [held the strike] strictly for patient safety.”