Keck housestaff campaign at Match Day, urge movement at the bargaining table

Three people stand on a lawn and look at fliers.
Amid contract negotiations, residents, interns and fellows also staged an email blast to Keck Dean Carolyn Meltzer. (Courtesy Miles Kelly)

At the Keck School of Medicine’s annual Match Day ceremony Friday morning, residents, interns and fellows employed by KSOM staged a flier demonstration to inform incoming residents of the salary and benefit inequity they’re fighting against in ongoing contract negotiations.

KSOM students learned what medical program or hospital they’d be spending the next three to six years of their training at during the ceremony, which was held on the Health Sciences Campus. While Match Day, for many students, is a day of celebration and relief, current Los Angeles County+USC residents wanted to get fair compensation on new trainees’ minds.

Current residents in the program — working rotations at Keck Hospital, LAC+USC Medical Center and Cedars-Sinai, among several other hospitals — passed fliers out to students who matched into the program that congratulated the incoming residents and read, “Make sure to ask your program if you’ll be employed by the Keck School of Medicine (KSOM) instead of LA County as your pay and benefits may be different from what you were told.”

LAC+USC residents are employed by either L.A. County or KSOM. Some 90 KSOM-employed residents receive more than $10,000 less in wages and benefits than the 900 employed by L.A. County who work the same jobs, said Dr. Eduardo Fernandez, a hematology and medical oncology fellow at Keck. 

While L.A. County-employed residents had long been represented by the Committee of Interns and Residents/Service Employees International Union, KSOM-employed residents unionized in May. They’ve been in contract negotiations with their employer since October in an effort to secure equal compensation and benefits with their L.A. County-employed counterparts.

Though movement was achieved on a few proposals, negotiations are moving slowly, Fernandez said, with significant resistance from KSOM representatives on most of the union’s economic proposals. The residents have proposed the creation of a diversity and inclusion fund, increased housing allowances, wages matched to what L.A. County-employed residents are paid, protected leave, and affordable healthcare plans and childcare. 

“The general feeling is that people are very angry and distressed with this process because it’s been dragged out for a long time [and] because [L.A. County-employed residents] negotiated a new contract last year,” Fernandez said. “It feels like a slap in the face, to be honest, for them to not, at least, give us the same salary as our [L.A. County] counterparts.”

Though medical students are supposed to be aware of the wages and benefits they’d receive before ranking programs, Fernandez said this information was not presented to him when he matched into the program, nor was it readily available to this years’ incoming residents, he said. The action at Match Day, he said, also aimed to let new residents — whom the coming contract will impact for the longest period of time — know they’re supported by their colleagues and union representatives.

“We want to make sure that [incoming residents] know that we’re fighting to change this,” Fernandez said. “We want to make sure that they know that this is, hopefully, not going to stay the same, and that’s what we’re fighting for, because it’s unfair for them to be put into these two buckets.”

Fliers reading "Congratulations on matching at LAC+USC" lay on a wooden table.
Keck housestaff distributed fliers to incoming residents of the Los Angeles County+USC residency program to inform them of their union rights and to encourage them to ask about the source of their pay. (Courtesy Miles Kelly)

Newly-matched residents were largely unaware of the pay gap between KSOM- and L.A. County-employed residents, a CIR/SEIU union contract organizer present at the event said. The organizer spoke with many students at Match Day who were “shocked” to hear they may be compensated differently depending on whether they’re employed by KSOM or L.A. County within the same residency program. Administrators and Match Day event organizers took no action to prevent the residents from passing out fliers or speaking to students.

L.A. County-employed residents joined their colleagues in exerting pressure on KSOM to bargain in good faith by partaking in the Match Day action and organizing a mass email campaign Friday morning. 

Hundreds of emails arrived in KSOM Dean Carolyn Meltzer’s inbox ahead of the Match Day ceremony calling for a fair contract for KSOM-employed housestaff. Dean Meltzer, Fernandez said, told residents in a meeting last year that KSOM would not be matching pay and benefits to L.A. County-employed housestaff because of the KSOM-employed residents’ unionization effort.

The residents’ email specifically criticized the KSOM negotiator’s “shameful” counter-proposals at the bargaining table. 

“KSOM’s negotiator has been rejecting critical Union proposals for benefits like parental leave. He has called money for diversity, patient care, and wellness unnecessary ‘slush funds,’” the email read. “He has been continuing to offer wages and a housing allowance that is less than what we earn working for LA County.”

Briah Fischer, a second-year OBGYN resident at the LAC+USC Medical Center who is employed by L.A. County, strongly supports equal compensation and benefits among all housestaff. She said the day’s action aimed to show KSOM how deeply the contract under negotiation affects residents’ lives and wellbeing, and also that its newest residents are now concerned about their ability to support themselves and their families. 

The contract in progress, Fischer said, is the KSOM-employed residents’ first step toward acting collectively as a unionized unit with greater bargaining power. 

“The hope is that all of their economic requests are met, but every little bit counts, and we’re basically there to support them,” Fischer said. “To win anything less than an equal contract would, honestly, be very disappointing and a little bit ridiculous.”