Column: U of M resident physicians have stepped up in the pandemic. They deserve a fair contract.

June 4, 2020 5:21 am

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Across the state and country, health care professionals have been praised as heroes and rightfully so. But for these heroes, they deserve more than just thanks. They deserve fair pay and a fair contract for their work. 

I work for the union that represents 1,300 resident physicians at the University of Michigan who have been trying to negotiate a fair contract with hospital administrators that includes fair compensation for the work they do. 

That work has become far more hazardous with the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve seen first-hand how they have stepped up — with no complaints — all while having to suspend their specialty-specific training to battle on the frontlines to save lives during this pandemic. 

During the pandemic, they continue to work 80-hour work weeks, deal with having hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loan debt from medical school, and some are even lodged away in hotel rooms from their families, so they don’t risk infecting them with coronavirus. 

This selfless group has willingly taken on the unprecedented challenge of serving, but they shouldn’t have to do it while making less than a first-year nurse — an income that’s not sustainable for the amount of work they do and the high cost of living in Ann Arbor.

Just as they have an obligation to serve their patients, U of M administration has an obligation to treat them fairly, and that means paying them commensurate with the services they provide and the extraordinary risks they’ve taken on and will likely take on again in the face of any coronavirus resurgence.  

While other universities, like Yale, have stepped up to give their residents the compensation they deserve, the “Leaders and the Best,” as the U of M slogan goes, have turned their backs on their physicians. It’s absolutely wrong. My colleagues have bravely taken on the task of caring for Michigan’s sickest patients, transported in from hard-hit places like Detroit, and are being ignored as our collective bargaining agreement is set to expire at the end of June.

Despite the administration’s claims, they can well afford to pay residents a fair wage. There are literally billions in unrestricted endowment funds that can and should be used to see that residents are justly compensated.  There are guaranteed state and federal funds provided to the University to train resident physicians.  

The residents at the University of Michigan’s hospital system are an integral part of the health care team and an integral part of the battle against COVID-19.

A fair wage is a small ask, especially considering the risks they take on, day in and day out, for people in our communities. Those that are on the frontlines took an oath to take care of patients. The curve has flattened, elective surgeries resumed several weeks ago, the residents are the people who will see more and more piled onto their plates, working even longer hours, to ensure patients get the care they need and make up for any lost profits.  

The bottom line is that they work extremely hard to heal and serve and in return deserve a fair contract. Now it’s time for university President Mark Schlissel to step up for them. That includes recognizing and showing that they are valued as medical professionals, especially at a time of historical medical challenge. They deserve a fair contract, and they deserve it now.  

Regardless of how this plays out, resident physicians will continue to go above and beyond for their patients, they always do, because being “the Leaders and the Best” means something to them.  

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Robin Tarter
Robin Tarter

Robin Walker Tarter, M.Ed., is the Executive Director of the University of Michigan House Officers Association (HOA). She has been in her current role since 2012. Prior to joining the HOA she was employed by General Motors and Saturn Corporation where she held various HR roles. Tarter is a graduate of Vanderbilt University.