The University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, seen from Winooski. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

A month after leaders at Vermont’s largest hospital gave nurses immediate raises, the medical center’s lowest-ranking doctors are also demanding better pay. 

Citing burnout, poor working conditions and patient safety concerns, residents at the University of Vermont Medical Center announced their intention to unionize last week.

The union would be a local chapter of the Committee of Interns and Residents, members said in a press release last week. The national organization is pushing to improve resident working conditions and pay as health care systems continue to struggle with staffing challenges.

“I have studied for years to get to where I am, but as a resident physician, some weeks I make less than minimum wage,” pediatrics resident Becca Merrifox said in the press release. “We are locked into our contracts with no power to negotiate. It’s hard to take care of patients when you are worried about making ends meet.”

A UVM Medical Center spokesperson said on Monday the hospital is “committed to a culture where people feel heard, respected and supported.” However, management declined to voluntarily recognize the union, spokesperson Annie Mackin said. 

UVM Medical Cener has roughly 350 medical residents and fellows, or physicians in training. These newly graduated doctors complete their education at teaching hospitals, such as UVMMC. Notoriously underpaid and overworked, residents train for three years or more under the guidance of seasoned doctors. 

Residencies give new doctors a place to train and specialize. Hospitals, in return, get additional medical personnel for a fraction of the cost of hiring full-fledged physicians. The average resident earned $64,000 in 2021, according to an industry survey. The median income for physicians in 2020, by comparison, was more than $200,000, the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows. 

The Burlington medical residents began organizing five months ago. The union’s statement from last week indicated that a “supermajority” supported the union, but a formal vote hasn’t taken place yet, union representative Taylor Haring said on Monday.

Mackin, the hospital spokesperson, said on Monday that management respects “the right of our residents to decide whether they want to join a union.” 

“We have encouraged the union seeking to represent our residents to work with the National Labor Relations Board on a process that will give everyone a voice,” she said. “We will continue our work to ensure access and service for our patients, families and communities.”

Formal recognition from the medical center would have meant the union could form — and bargain on behalf of members — without an official vote, Haring said. Without recognition, however, the residents would have to go through an official vote and certification process with the National Labor Relations Board before bargaining can begin. 

Collective bargaining has immense power when it comes to wages and working conditions. Last month, management granted immediate pay bumps to most members of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, a union that represents some 2,400 health care workers at UVM Medical Center. 

Residents at hospitals in Massachusetts, Oregon and Illinois have already formed local chapters of the Committee of Interns and Residents, according to the industry magazine Becker’s Healthcare Review. 

“By forming a union, we are hopeful that the administration will afford us the same opportunity to advocate for ourselves that they allow nurses, technicians and other vital members of the health care team,” neurology resident Kaley Kinnamon said in the press release.

Wikipedia: Liora Engel-Smith covers health care for VTDigger. She previously covered rural health at NC Health News in North Carolina and the Keene Sentinel in New Hampshire. She...