Healthcare workers rally for fair contract amid staffing crisis at Coney Island hospital

south brooklyn health hospital rally
Doctors and allies rallied outside South Brooklyn Health in Coney Island on June 20 calling for more staffing.
Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

Healthcare workers, allies and elected officials rallied outside NYC Health + Hospitals/South Brooklyn Health in Coney Island on June 20 to demand a fair contract in light of high turnover rate and an alleged staffing shortage.

Thursday’s rally, organized by the Doctors Council SEIU, was the third to highlight a “healthcare emergency” at NYC Health + Hospitals. Two other protests were held on June 14 at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx and on June 18 at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens.

The Doctors Council SEIU represents more than 2,800 physicians who have been working under an expired contract since last summer and are currently engaged in a contract dispute with NYC Health + Hospitals and other affiliated institutions, including New York University, Mount Sinai and Physician Affiliate Group of New York.

Healthcare professionals called on NYC Health + Hospitals — which operates public hospitals and clinics in New York City — and affiliates to address the staffing shortage and negotiate a competitive contract that also focuses on the well-being of the frontline workers, who were hailed as heroes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Doctors at NYC Health + Hospitals say their pay is much lower than their colleagues who work for privately owned hospitals, and that the staffing shortage is at a breaking point that is now threatening patients’ health and safety.

Ethan Abrishamian, an internal medicine resident at South Brooklyn Health, said a fair contract would be the solution to address the recruitment and retention crisis at NYC Health + Hospitals.

“Residents can only succeed if we have the best attendings guiding us during our training here,” Abrishamian said.

The New York State Nurses Association rallied outside South Brooklyn Health in Coney Island on June 20 amid an alleged staffing crisis.Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

The OB/GYN department at South Brooklyn Health has not hired new doctors in a decade despite a significant increase in deliveries in recent years as the only major hospital serving South Brooklyn.

Dr. Aycan Turkmen has been an attending OB/GYN physician at the hospital for 24 years. She shared the story of a patient who couldn’t get her birth control because she was unable to get an appointment.

Turkmen, who also trains residents, told Brooklyn Paper that her department delivered around 1,400 babies last year. The OB/GYN department has about 12 doctors, many of whom work 80 to 100 hours a week.

“Over the years, we’ve lost a lot of doctors, and a lot of them haven’t been replaced,” Turkmen said. “That’s the big problem.”

Some doctors retired because they were burnt out, she said, and others left for greener pastures with better pay and hours.

“The biggest problem is that the youngest doctor in our department is at least 15 years out of residency,” Turkmen said. “So when I’m talking about the next generation, we don’t have a next generation because the young doctors don’t want to come here. It’s the pay, it’s the work situation, but the big thing is respect. It is the way you need to be treated and the way you need to be valued.”

Given the heavy workload, Turkmen said that patients don’t always get to see the same doctor at their appointments, making it impossible to establish a doctor-patient relationship. Patients also have to repeat their health history everytime they see a different doctor.

“In OB/GYN, we cover the labor, we cover the emergency room, we cover the clinic, we cover the operating room, so we get shifted around as needed during the day. And sometimes the patients that are scheduled to see us have to see someone else,” Turkmen said.

NYC Health + Hospitals is putting both patients and staff at risk by allowing the shortage to go on, doctors said.Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

Dr. Frances Quee, a pediatrician at Gotham Health, Belvis in the Bronx and president of the Doctors Council SEIU, said the group’s main concern is retaining and recruiting doctors to provide a safe environment for their patients.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, NYC Health + Hospitals experienced physician staffing challenges, Quee said, adding that, during the pandemic, some doctors got sick or died while others left after reevaluating their work situation.

“All those vacancies are still there. We’re not able to recruit anybody to fill them,” Quee said. “So the doctors that stayed behind in the system are doing double work.”

The union is demanding higher pay to attract new doctors and allow for retainment — something Quee said they are not greedy for seeking.

“We can recruit residents that are coming out of training. We train these residents, [and] when they finish their training, most of them leave because they have so much medical school debt that they prefer going into other systems that will pay the money,” Quee said.

Council Member Kalman Yeger (D-Brooklyn) said it was a “no-brainer” to support the contract negotiations.

“We’re losing professionals to better-paying systems; we’re losing professionals to better jobs,” Yeger said. “We invest in the training, we invest in the recruitment, and then we lose them because we’re not treating them right.”

State Senator Jabari Brisport assured the crowd that he was an ally in their fight for a fair contract. Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

State Senator Jabari Brisport (D-Brooklyn) reassured the crowd that he was an ally in their fight for a fair contract.

“It’s time for these hospitals to show the doctors the money,” he said. “We need to make sure we invest, to make sure we can hire more [doctors], to reduce those ratios and save lives.”

Assembly Member Phara Souffrant Forrest (D-Brooklyn), a former nurse, said she knows all too well about the challenges healthcare workers face daily.

“One thing I will tell you is that on the unit, we’re all the same,” Souffrant Forrest said. “We’re all the same because the patients don’t care. They tap you, they call you doctor, but you know you are the RN. They tap you, [and] they call you the RN. You know he’s a resident on staff that night; it doesn’t matter. Because at the end of the day, safe staffing saves lives.”

NYC Health + Hospitals did not immediately respond to a request for comment.