NEW YORK >> For decades, some New York City workers in “physically taxing” jobs were eligible to retire at age 50, after 25 years of service, and start collecting full pensions.
More than 380 job titles — from window cleaner to plumber to exterminator — qualified for the “physically taxing” designation before the city ended the program for new employees in 2012. The New York State Nurses Association felt that nurses deserved to be on the list of mostly male-dominated professions, created for city employees in strenuous jobs who might not be able to work until the usual retirement age, which ranges from 55-62. So starting in 2004, the group asked the city to include nurses at city hospitals. The city refused three times.
Today, the city finally acknowledged its mistake. The office of the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York announced a $20.8 million settlement, subject to court approval, in which the city will compensate nurses denied the benefit. Roughly 1,665 nurses hired by the city from 1965-2012 will receive $1,000-$99,000, according to the settlement.
The settlement follows a 2010 finding by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that the city discriminated against nurses by excluding them from its “physically taxing” list. The case was then referred to the Department of Justice. At the time of the finding, 95 percent of New York State Nurses Association members were women.
“As soon as Mayor de Blasio came into office, he acknowledged that nurses and midwives have difficult, physically demanding jobs and committed to resolving their claims,” Raul Contreras, a spokesman for Bill de Blasio, said in a statement. He added: “Approximately 1,700 currently employed and retired nurses and midwives will see a fair and equitable resolution for their years of service.”
The victory was welcome but a long time coming. “It’s a bittersweet kind of thing,” said Curlean Duncan-Britton, a nurse for more than 30 years at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn. She added: “Everyone knows that the nursing profession, 95 percent of our time we’re standing on our feet.”
Duncan-Britton, who has chronic back and shoulder pain, and three other women brought the complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2008. “I’ve had patients spit on me,” she said. “I’ve had patients fall on me.”
Anne Bové, who was a nurse at Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan for more than 40 years and was another of the original complainants, said the settlement was a small step toward recognizing decades of discrimination against women in the workplace. “It’s almost anticlimactic because all women have in this country is the right to vote,” Bové said. “There is no legislation for equal pay.”
Today’s settlement marked the culmination of a seven-year effort by prosecutors who investigated the case and negotiated with the city.
“Equal treatment under law means just that, equal treatment, and this office is committed to ensuring that women are treated fairly and equitably in the workplace,” Richard P. Donoghue, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District, said in a statement.
The settlement also finally acknowledged the physically demanding nature of the nursing profession, said Susan Davis, the New York State Nurses Association’s general counsel.
“Anybody who knows public health knows that what public health nurses do is so strenuous,” Davis said. “They’re dealing with the highest-risk population. They have enormous exposure.”