Healthcare workers have been active on the labor front as employment contracts come up for renegotiation and workers get a chance to bargain for better working conditions following a historic public health crisis.

Contentious negotiations between hospitals and unions have also led to major strikes, including a three-day walkout among 7,000 nurses at two New York hospitals at the start of this year.

Last year, tens of thousands of healthcare workers waged strikes. Nearly twice as many others threatened to do so, but reached deals before walking off the job, including physician residents and interns who have been increasingly organizing in recent years.

The pandemic “created new perspectives in the minds of doctors and other healthcare workers that have always been there in some form, but never in such an acute and sustained way,” John August, director of healthcare labor relations at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics only tracks strikes involving 1,000 or more workers, though Healthcare Dive tracked strikes involving 500 or more healthcare workers throughout 2022, including those averted when a deal was reached.

Strikes among healthcare workers in 2022

Work stoppages involving 500 or more workers

A majority of the strikes that took place and were averted involved nonprofit hospitals, which can likely be attributed to the prevalence of nonprofits compared to for-profit hospitals. 

Many strikes also occurred in California, the state with the largest number of healthcare workers. California nurses alone represent 14% of the nation’s healthcare and social assistance workforce, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A three-day strike among 15,000 Minnesota nurses in September was the largest strike by number of workers last year.

They returned to work without a deal and threatened another strike, before reaching an agreement in December with 18% and 17% raises over the course of three-year contracts.

The longest strike occurred at Kaiser Permanente facilities in Northern California, when 2,000 mental health clinicians walked off the job for nearly 10 weeks. They reached a deal focused on making workloads more manageable and reducing patient wait times — key concerns initially prompting the strike.

Averted strikes among healthcare workers in 2022

Strikes threatened by 500 or more healthcare workers that were averted

Healthcare workers embroiled in labor disputes today have similar goals: to ensure they work at facilities with adequate staffing levels and to get higher wages to quell ongoing turnover and keep pace with inflation and the rising cost of living. Many are also asking for greater protections against workplace violence and more powerful say in front-line working conditions.

Recent healthcare worker strikes are part of a larger labor mobilization movement as the country enters a post-pandemic environment where workers want a greater say in decision making, Dan Cornfield, a professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University, said.

“There’s always sector-specific labor issues and then there’s just the general ones across the economy,” he said.

Increased organizing comes as workers in other industries and companies, like Starbucks and Amazon, push for unionization, he said.

“Healthcare is not the only sector during this post-pandemic period where labor mobilization is occurring — there have been strikes and new unionization efforts in just about every sector of the U.S. economy,” he said.