After a year of failed negotiations, approximately 160 unionized resident physicians working at Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens, New York, went on strike for three days in May. They demanded pay parity and other benefits.
First-year residents were being paid about $7,000 less than their Manhattan counterparts. They struck a tentative deal with their employer, Mount Sinai.
This was the first resident strike by New York City hospital doctors in 33 years.
Last month, approximately 160 unionized resident physicians at Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens, New York, ended a three-day strike on May 24 after reaching a deal focused on achieving pay parity and stronger guarantees for hazard pay in the event of a future pandemic.
The residents—members of the Committee of Interns and Residents—are employed by the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, not by Elmhurst Hospital or NYC Health + Hospitals. Assigned by Mount Sinai to work at Elmhurst Hospital, they come from the departments of internal medicine, pediatrics, and psychiatry. The strike’s historical nature is rooted in the fact that it is the first strike to be carried out by resident physicians in NYC in the last 33 years. Furthermore, it originated at a public hospital that sat at the “epicenter” of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. In 2020, hospital staff at Elmhurst—which largely treats immigrants and the lower income patients—were overwhelmed (it was 230% overcapacity in early 2020), under-protected, and facing equipment shortages. The hospital's grounds served as a makeshift morgue when trailers were set up on site.
According to a press release issued by the Committee of Interns and Residents (CIR), “Mount Sinai continues to refuse to bring the physicians’ salaries up to parity with Mount Sinai Hospital residents or to agree to hazard pay language for the doctors who brought Queens through the worst of COVID. The physicians say that this behavior from Mount Sinai feels both racist and anti-union.” CIR could not be reached by MDLinx for additional comment.
The New York Times reported that first-year Elmhurst residents earned about $7,000 less than their non-unionized Mount Sinai counterparts in Manhattan. “Some of the striking doctors said they believed that the pay disparity was related to the fact that many of the resident physicians in the city’s public hospitals are foreign nationals who are here on visas,” the Times also reported. 
“It feels so unjust that we, as largely immigrant doctors serving this working-class immigrant community in Queens, have to beg to get what we need to pay our rent, and from a corporation like Mount Sinai that touts its commitment to New York communities,” Dr. Tanathun Kajornsakchai stated in the CIR press release. “Mount Sinai should invest in the doctors caring for so many people in Queens who cannot get care anywhere else.”
According to CIR, problems with Mount Sinai aren’t new. In fact, the residents endured a year of failed negotiations before striking. “CIR has filed multiple unfair labor practice charges against Mount Sinai for its failure to bargain fairly with the Elmhurst physicians, including for unreasonably delaying bargaining for a period of four months and refusing to furnish information requested by the union,” they said in the statement.
The residents’ deal, reached on May 24, included a tentative contract—set to expire June 30, 2025—that includes an 18% wage increase over three years, a $2,000 ratification bonus, an enforceable agreement to negotiate on hazard pay, a meal allowance on par with that of other Mount Sinai hospital residents, and the creation of a transportation committee. Additionally, the doctors were presented with a chief differential pay in the amount of $3,500, holiday pay, and graduate education leave.
MDs weigh in on the impact of resident strikes
Unsurprisingly, the Elmhurst strike may have lit a torch for other healthcare providers. According to CIR, Morningside and West resident physicians in NYC also nearly went on strike in June after six months of bargaining with Mount Sinai—but they reached a tentative agreement, avoiding a second resident strike in NYC.
While resident strikes aren’t common, Kristen Fuller, MD, thinks that strikes among healthcare professionals are necessary, “especially among residents because they are treated so poorly.” “Residency is hard no matter how you slice it, but I think there is always room for improvement for resident treatment. This starts with paid therapy sessions, paid meals, more time off, strict work hours, higher pay, proper maternity and paternity leave, access to paid or supplemented IVF therapy, paid childcare, and loan forgiveness,” Fuller notes.
Yasmine S. Ali, MD, MSCI, FACC, FACP, agrees, saying, “I have always wondered why more residents don't strike. Resident physicians have traditionally been treated poorly…I was not treated well as a resident physician myself, nor were most of my colleagues.”
Ali says that resident sleep deprivation, poor mental and physical health, and harassment can all lead to burnout, impacting the resident and patient care. “It is a shame that the medical profession as a whole has not seen fit to fix this, and it sets a bad precedent for the rest of a physician's career,” she says. “I wouldn't be surprised if there are more strikes like this now that these residents have led the way,” she adds.
Despite the need for better resident treatment and the benefits of striking, Fuller knows that striking can also affect patient care. “Residents play a huge part in taking care of patients at a hospital, so if a large group of residents are not at work…there are less doctors in the hospital taking care of the patients,” she says, noting that attending physicians would have to step up and fill in the gaps—and that this could be tough.
Fuller also says that striking isn’t always an option. “When I was in residency, if we [went on strike], we would absolutely risk being fired or put on probation,” she says. “So, I believe a strike has to be done with a union,” like the residents at Elmhurst did.
Erkeda DeRouen, MD, says that an overall mindset shift is necessary, noting that “when [residents] complain, they are generally told to ‘suck it up,’ or, ‘that's the way it has always been.’ This mindset is indoctrinated into physicians so that by the time they are attending physicians, they do not believe that they are able to correctly utilize their voice to advocate for physician well-being and safety.”
DeRouen says that she supports the strikers and that striking can ultimately lead to better long-term care for patients: “As I hear about the Elmhurst residents, it makes me proud to see all that they are doing to work for better treatment,” she says. “Their commitment to advocate for themselves is actually advocating for their patients. Who can give adequate care if they are not getting the care that they need for themselves?”