University hospital residents negotiate for fair wages amid pandemic

Thursday, May 14, 2020 - 3:38pm

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Allison Engkvist/Daily

As Michigan Medicine continues to treat COVID-19 patients, hospital residents, who are currently serving as frontline workers in the pandemic, are pushing for wage increases, voicing their frustration with administrators ahead of their collective bargaining contract expiration date in late June.

The University of Michigan House Officers Association, the union representing University Hospital resident physicians, criticized hospital administrators for being unwilling to offer economic concessions in the negotiations in a press release published on May 8. 

In the press release, Robin Tarter, executive director of the University HOA, said administrators should acknowledge the important role residents play in operating the hospital and provide adequate compensation for their work, especially during the pandemic. 

“Hospital administrators need to recognize the extraordinary risks residents have willingly taken on during this extraordinary time and fairly compensate us based on that reality,” Tarter said. “These hardworking medical professionals are an integral part of the hospital system. Administrators must stop looking at residents as cheap labor and compensate them for the hard work they do here.”

Tarter told The Daily many residents had to pause their specialty training programs in mid-March, about when the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Michigan, in order to be redeployed to assist with the response to the outbreak. Several residents shifted their duties as they began treatment of COVID-19 patients in the respiratory intensive care unit or handling virtual patient visits.

Tarter said the HOA has been formally negotiating their contract with the University since January, but once the COVID-19 outbreak hit, administrators argued the financial costs of the pandemic would prevent them from making further concessions. 

HOA met with Michigan Medicine administration on May 11 to discuss their demands. Smith said a negotiator from Michigan Medicine told them the administration wouldn’t discuss economic packages any further. 

“(She) again compared us to other employees, noting that we should be essentially happy for what we've offered us thus far and that there would not be even any consideration of increasing the economic package that they were offering us still,” Smith said.

HOA President Elect Victoria Hoch, resident in emergency medicine, said there was a $5-7 million difference between the administration’s contract proposal and the contract the HOA is pushing for. She described the disappointment residents feel about not getting wage increases.

“It’s been weeks now of the University telling us that they are unwilling or unable to access the unrestricted endowment funds or find more money to make that difference in contract proposals, that five to seven million dollars,” Hoch said. “This is a huge thing for us for residents and fellows because we don’t make that much money to start with and we work a lot of hours a week, but the University says they are unable to do it because of COVID.” 

Tarter challenged the University’s use of the pandemic and financial losses to justify the lack of an economic settlement. She argued residents should be able to negotiate fair wages as the Graduate Employers’ Organization and the University reached a contract agreement on wage increases during “the height of the pandemic” in mid-April.

Michigan Medicine spokeswoman Mary Masson told the Daily in an email that Michigan Medicine is working to address the demands of the petition.

"We continue to negotiate in good faith with our House Officers Association and have made fair offers for consideration that will enable them to continue receiving competitive salaries and benefits," Masson said. "We value the contributions they provide our care at Michigan Medicine, especially during our current COVID-19 response. We look forward to continuing discussions with the HOA."

Since before the pandemic in January, the HOA has primarily advocated for fairer wages by saying administrators should recognize the particular value house officers bring to the hospital. Smith cited studies to say resident physicians, unlike other hospital employees, are guaranteed to generate additional revenue.

“We are really the only group that comes with guaranteed revenue and funding for the hospital,” Smith said “Residents, independent of the federal money they bring in, increase the revenue for hospitals. The offer the University had given us pre-COVID, we felt, was essentially unfair and actually significantly less than the contract they offered nurses a year ago.” 

LSA sophomore Saad Shami, a pre-med student, reflected on the dispute and said while the pandemic and the wage disputes haven’t discouraged him from pursuing a career in medicine, he is disappointed in the hospital’s response.

“My entire purpose for going into the medical field is more towards the idea that I just want to help people at the end of the day,” Shami said. “But with how the hospital is treating its residents and up-and-coming doctors, it doesn’t really put them in a good light.”

Daily Staff Reporter Arjun Thakkar can be reached at arjunt@umich.edu.