Tentative Agreement Reached Between Healthcare Workers and Hospitals



George Gresham, 1199 union president, and Marc Kramer, president of the League of Voluntary Hospitals and Homes, reach tentative agreement. Photo courtesy of the 1199 union.

“I cried a little bit coming home because I didn’t know if I was fine. You know how scary that is? Wondering if my baby is going to get sick,” said Tyreese Byers, a nursing assistant, who tended to elderly COVID-19 patients at a care home on the Upper West Side, while pregnant during the pandemic.

Byers gave birth last October. But one month after returning to work from maternity leave, she tested positive for the coronavirus in January. After working in a short-staffed nursing home for 18 months where exposure to COVID-19 is high, Byers wants compensation as a frontline worker and she is not alone.

Members of the 1199 United Healthcare Workers East Union have spent the last month bargaining for higher wages from their employer, the League of Voluntary Hospitals and Homes. They reached a tentative agreement only five days before their old contract expired on September 30, and now the union needs a clear majority of members to vote in favor of the new contract for it to take effect after October 7.

The union, which represents about 78,000 workers in 90 healthcare facilities across New York City and the state, including Mount Sinai and New York Presbyterian hospitals, is a labor-management association headquartered in Midtown. It provides a range of services, such as representation in contract negotiations with the League, where they bargain for better benefits and wages. 

But a distribution attendant at a Manhattan hospital, who spoke on condition of anonymity in fear of retaliation, said that every three years, after the union’s contract with the League expires, negotiating benefits seems to be off the table. 

“The only thing we negotiate around is pension, salaries, and possibly holidays,” he said.

Before the tentative agreement, conversations about wage increases between the union and the hospitals weren’t going well. In the weeks leading up to the contract expiration, union members held various bargaining sessions, vigils, and an informational picket, where they voiced concerns about the contract negotiations with some even threatening to strike. 

But Samuel Estreicher, director of the Center of Labor and Employment at N.Y.U. School of Law, predicted a strike would never happen. 

“It’s a bad time. People are worried about their health, health care delivery and COVID-19. I think they’ll threaten to strike but I don’t think there will be a strike,” said Estreicher, predicting that both parties would compromise. “Negotiations can be a form of choreography. It’s like a dance, where both sides know where things will end up.”

The last contract granted a 3% annual wage increase to 1199 members every October 1st. This time, the union bargained for a 7% wage increase but the League offered 1%. In response, the union lowered to a 5% increase, while the League remained firm at 1%.

Both parties finally settled on a 2% wage increase for the first year of the new contract. 

In addition, the League agreed to designate June 19, known as Juneteenth, as an official holiday; and it will pay a 3% increase for the two following years of the contract, and a $3,000 one-time bonus payment to all 1199 members for their work throughout the pandemic. Benefits, however, will stay the same. 

“Health care workers have displayed incredible bravery and professionalism serving on the front lines of this pandemic, and we are proud to offer wages and benefits that recognize their contributions while providing our patients the best healthcare in the world,” said a League spokesperson, in an emailed statement.

But a number of healthcare workers aren’t pleased with the outcome. 

“So the way I see it is we were ready to strike for 1% but we settled when they only gave us one extra percentage out of five,” said the distribution attendant. “Come on, we went from 5% all the way to 2% and we consider this a victory?”

Amber Delgado, a nurse at a hospital in upstate New York, said 1199 did not dispute the vaccine mandate strongly enough. “I am not a fan of our union,” she said.

But Byers sees the mandate as a distraction. “It’s too big a fight,” she said. “I understand that the vaccine is a personal choice but that fight is just too big for the union to handle by itself.”

Byers is grateful that her health coverage and benefits remain the same, but she wishes the union had gotten the 7% increase. 

“I can’t say I’m happy or unhappy with it,” said Byers about the tentative agreement. “We just want to move forward.”