85 strikes since 2021: Why healthcare workers are 'more emboldened to act'

Hospital and health system employees have long participated in labor strikes across the U.S., citing concerns about pay and staffing. However, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these issues, leading to an increasing number of workers holding actions to raise awareness over their concerns, one expert told Becker's.

In 2021, a flurry of labor actions was even deemed "Striketober" online and on social media as union workers in healthcare and other industries walked off the job or threatened to do so. Additionally, a Gallup poll conducted in August 2022 showed the highest support for labor unions in almost six decades.

"I've done interviews with workers who have been on strike over the last couple of years that talked about how they experienced more patient deaths in the first year and a half of the pandemic than they had seen during their entire careers," said Johnnie Kallas, a PhD candidate and the director of the Ithaca, N.Y.-based Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations labor action tracker

He added: "And I think the frustration and the stress caused by the pandemic led to both a lot of burnout and, in cases where workers had already formed unions, more collective action in the form of strikes."

The Cornell labor action tracker shows 85 strikes involving workers in the healthcare and social assistance sector since January 2021. This includes 39 strikes in 2022, an increase from 33 in 2021. As of June 2, 13 strikes had occurred in the sector this year.

Most of these strikes have occurred in hospitals, but those in nursing homes and other healthcare facilities are also included in the data. 

Nurses, physician residents in spotlight

Perhaps some of the most high-profile strikes have occurred among nurses and physician residents. 

Most recently, more than 150 physicians went on strike May 22 at NYC Health + Hospitals' Elmhurst Hospital Center. The planned five-day walkout represents the first physician strike at a New York City hospital in more than three decades. The strike also took place at a hospital that was once dubbed "the epicenter of the epicenter" of the pandemic in the U.S. 

Also, thousands of New York City nurses ended their strike in January after reaching tentative contracts. Members of the New York State Nurses Association went on strike for three days at Mount Sinai Medical Center on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx.

Physicians and nurses are not the only ones taking action, either. Members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, including service and technical workers, went on strike April 19 at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland (Calif.). And Members of United Public Workers ended their nearly two-month strike in April at Maui Health hospitals by approving a new contract. 

"I don't think [the issues] are entirely different [from] what we saw before," Mr. Kallas said. "It's pay. It's staffing. It's health and safety. I'd say those are probably the three main issues. But I think workers are now more emboldened to act on that."

He also said he has observed a shift toward healthcare workers being willing to engage in indefinite strikes, meaning they will be off the job until they reach an acceptable settlement. For example, nurses at Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Mass., ratified a new contract Jan. 3, 2022, ending a 301-day strike.

Mr. Kallas made it clear, however, that while he believes there has been a shift toward indefinite strikes, most strikes in healthcare remain of a fixed duration, meaning they are slated to last a certain number of days. 

The strike by physicians at NYC Health + Hospitals' Elmhurst Hospital Center was one such action.

Sunyata Altenor, communications director for the nation's largest house staff union, the Committee of Interns and Residents, told Becker's: "What we've seen with the advocacy of doctors, nurses and other striking healthcare professionals since COVID I think is in part due to the fact that the strain has become too burdensome after hundreds of thousands of healthcare professionals have left the profession. This leaves those remaining having to carry the burden of providing care as both patient loads and inflation increases."

Hospitals and health systems generally try to avoid strikes. They say they prefer to tackle issues at the bargaining table and are committed to negotiating in good faith. If a strike does take place, organizations often implement contingency plans, which may include bringing in temporary staff. Meanwhile, a number of planned strikes have recently been averted due to agreements being reached.

Members of Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West reached a contract settlement with management, averting a five-day strike that was scheduled to begin May 22 at five HCA Healthcare facilities in California.

HCA Healthcare Far West Division spokesperson Antonio Castelan said in a statement shared with Becker's: "We have been in productive negotiations for more than three months and are pleased to have reached an agreement."

He also thanked communities "for their ongoing support as we prepared to serve our patients had the union conducted a strike. We are fortunate that locally and nationally, our organization is able to draw upon its strength, its partners and colleagues across the country to support these five hospitals and communities."

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