Medical workers stage a protest in front of UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)
Medical residents stage a protest in front of UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)

Resident physicians at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland say their salaries aren’t keeping up with the cost of living in the Bay Area. Theirs is one of the latest health care union battles to heat up in California between workers and hospital administration, and is drawing a new generation of members to union organizing.

“A lot of people think being a doctor is super glamorous and you make tons of money and everyone loves you,” said Alana Arnold, a second-year resident. “But in fact, residency is difficult. We’re here to learn and train. And we have to protect ourselves just like any other workforce.”

She and other pediatric medicine residents in Oakland have joined with SEIU’s Committee of Interns and Residents to fight for higher compensation, and a special fund for patients to cover bus tokens and other costs to help them get to appointments and maintain care. 

Residents are paid $52,000 a year and work up to 80 hours a week. The residents say they want a small $2,000 bonus over their three-year residency to help offset housing costs. But after more than a year of negotiating, there is no resolution. The latest talks with a federal mediator broke down.

“This contract bargaining has now become an issue of respect,” Arnold said at a demonstration outside the hospital last Friday. “The hospital administrators must see us as equal contributors and as professionals who provide critical medical services to patients of Children’s Hospital.”

The hospital says it values the residents, but it also faces high costs of doing business in the Bay Area. Spokesperson Melinda Krigel says the hospital has to balance the residency program with a lot of competing needs, including patient care, research and community benefits.

“We have to look at all our costs and programs and decide where we have to put the money to sustain our mission,” Krigel said.

She said the residents’ demands come at the same time that federal grants for graduate medical training have been slashed 30 percent. The hospital plans to accept 28 residents in the next incoming class, compared to 30 in each of the last few years.

“Without that federal funding, our hands are tied,” Ms. Krigel said, adding that the residents do get various financial perks — including a stipend for books, and free food.

The residents say the hospital should tap into the $50 million philanthropic gift it recently received from Marc and Lynne Benioff, following the Oakland hospital’s affiliation with the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital earlier this year. The hospital says it hasn’t yet decided how it will spend the money.

The residents were joined by at least one member of another union at their march on Friday. Susan Segal is a nurse in the intensive care nursery at Children’s Hospital Oakland and a member of the California Nurses Association, a union that has often been at odds with SEIU, the union backing the residents.

“There are huge divides. And there have been historically huge feuds and coming together of SEIU and CNA,” Segal said. “But when it comes to this hospital, we stand together. Personally as a nurse and union member I’m committed to supporting every other union and their fights.”

Arnold says it’s important for people at all levels of the health care field, and of all ages, to get involved with their union.

“Being a doctor is a privilege and an honor,” Arnold said. “But it is something that should not be abused by your employer. And that’s what’s going on with the hospital administration. So it’s just out of necessity that we need to organize and make sure that our working conditions are appropriate and necessary to carry out our duty, which is to provide the best care possible.”

Resident Physicians at Children’s Oakland Rally Over Contract Stalemate 10 June,2014April Dembosky


April Dembosky

April Dembosky is the health reporter for The California Report and KQED News. She covers health policy and public health, and has reported extensively on the economics of health care, the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act in California, mental health and end-of-life issues.

Her work is regularly rebroadcast on NPR and has been recognized with awards from the Society for Professional Journalists (for sports reporting), and the Association of Health Care Journalists (for a story about pediatric hospice). Her hour-long radio documentary about home funerals won the Best New Artist award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2009.

April occasionally moonlights on the arts beat, covering music and dance. Her story about the first symphony orchestra at Burning Man won the award for Best Use of Sound from the Public Radio News Directors Inc.

Before joining KQED in 2013, April covered technology and Silicon Valley for The Financial Times, and freelanced for Marketplace and The New York Times. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Smith College.

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