by Lauren Jessop
Hundreds of medical residents at the University of Pennsylvania Health System may become the first group of its kind in the state to unionize as their demands for higher pay and better working conditions have gone ignored.
Unionization efforts sparked nationwide after the pandemic pushed long working hours from routine to unsustainable. As such, the residents at Penn Medicine’s main campus in West Philadelphia decided to add their name to the growing list of those seeking representation.
A supermajority of the 1,400-plus resident and fellow physicians employed by the heath system has demanded voluntary recognition of their union with the Committee of Interns and Residents, the largest house staff union in the country.
A press release issued by CIR said resident-led organizing began early in the pandemic when they were denied their regular cost of living increase. After a months-long struggle with hospital management – over what they say are urgently needed improvements to working conditions and patient care – they began pursuing unionization.
Although Penn Medicine hospitals are among the nation’s top medical centers, residents say low pay, rising costs of living, “and a national culture of overwork that often leads to burnout, depression and even suicide, is pushing many to their breaking point.”
“We serve one of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable patient populations, who already face huge obstacles to accessing care,” said Dr. Madison Sharp, a third-year OB/GYN resident at health system. “We are deeply committed to our patients, many of whom have complex medical conditions. We do these patients a disservice when we are not provided with what we need to be the best doctors we can possibly be.”
CIR currently represents members in eight states: California, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, New Mexico and Vermont, as well as the District of Columbia. Pennsylvania would bring the total to 10, making it the eighth group of residents to join in the past 11 months.
Dara Streit of CIR told The Center Square they have seen considerable growth in recent years from 17,000 members at the beginning of 2020 to its current membership of 24,000.
Becoming a physician in the U.S. requires four years of college followed by four years of medical school. Then, depending on the specialty, there are at least three additional years of residency training.
Penn Medicine says the “best of the best” come to them for clinical training because of the expertise their faculty offers. A first-year resident’s salary is $68,869 that increases approximately $3,000 each year for nine years, reaching $94,404.
According to the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, residents are allowed to work up to 80 hours per week averaged over a four-week period.
While providing certain benefits, some in the field say unionization may come with risks.
An article written by the Association of American Medical Colleges says there are concerns about the relationships between the residents and the physicians who train them, and the possibility of strikes.
They also point out that money is an issue for hospitals. Federal funding pays for a portion of residents’ salaries, but the majority comes out of the hospital’s budget.
“Hospitals raise the question of whether compensation should be calculated only by hours worked. They think about the tremendous amount of education they’re providing,” said Janis Orlowski, MD, AAMC chief health care officer.
Orlowski noted that residents do not pay for their apprenticeships as others, like oral surgeons, do.
The Center Square’s attempts to obtain a statement from Penn Medicine were unsuccessful.
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Lauren Jessop is a contributor to The Center Square.
Photo “Physician” by Francisco Venâncio.