UW Medicine residents stage walkout at Seattle hospitals Wednesday

Feb 23, 2022, 10:34 AM | Updated: Feb 24, 2022, 9:31 am
COVID variant, Seattle, Skagit Valley Hospital, vaccination, UW Medicine...
In this Jan. 26, 2021, file photo, a respiratory therapist begins to put on protective equipment before going into a patient's room in the COVID intensive care unit at UW Medical Center-Montlake in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

Hundreds of resident physicians in the UW Medicine system staged a walk out at Seattle-area hospitals and clinics Wednesday to ask for more pay and better treatment.

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A physician told KIRO Newsradio earlier this week that the latest contract has no financial increase, and many say it’s unfair given the high cost of living in the region. They also say many of them make less than minimum wage, and are working up to 80 hours a week.

Dr. Amy Zhang, a resident physician and president of the Resident and Fellow Physician Union-Northwest, said Wednesday that most UW first-year residents qualify for housing subsidies, and many have hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt.

“We’re usually working 60 to 80 hours a week, which is why it works out to approximately minimum wage hourly. We are essentially in the system of indentured servitude,” Zhang said.

Zhang said they were offered a 1% raise, but because inflation was more than 7% this past year, it really comes out to a decrease in pay.

During the pandemic, they are commonly working so many hours that they do not even get adequate time off to rest. Zhang said there are pregnant doctors who “are losing weight during pregnancy because they do not have enough time to eat or sleep.”

Trying to save a patient’s life while going on 24 hours of no sleep is a dangerous combination, Zhang said.

“This is bad for patient care and it’s bad for general public safety when we are being worked so much that we’re falling asleep on the job,” she said, adding, “We are making very critical decisions — this is a matter of life and death.”

She added that the system of being forced to work for relatively low pay for several years while having high student loan debt means that students from privileged backgrounds are more likely to become doctors.

“Especially for people from lower-income backgrounds, where you don’t have wealthy parents to pay off your tuition, you may graduate with more debt. … When you create a system where the only people who have access to higher education, where the only people who have access to medical training may be those from wealthier backgrounds who are disproportionately white, who are disproportionately male, and do not have childhood or household responsibilities, then you are creating a system that is very disadvantageous and inequitable to people from diverse backgrounds,” Zhang said.

She adds that the UW has not given them hazard pay, despite the fact that they have been on the frontlines throughout the pandemic, risking COVID-19 exposure for themselves and their loved ones.

The largest walkout was expected to be outside the UW Medical Center in Montlake at 12 p.m.

In a statement to KIRO Newsradio, UW Medicine had said it plans to continue to negotiate in good faith with the Resident and Fellow Physician Union-Northwest.

The union represents about 20% of practicing physicians in King County, according to a UW resident physician and union member who contacted KIRO Newsradio this week. More than 500 resident physicians at UW training sites across Seattle are expected to participate in the walk out Wednesday.

Read the full statement from UW Medicine below:

The University of Washington recently began bargaining with the Resident & Fellow Physician Union-Northwest (RFPU-Northwest) on our 2022-25 contract. We recognize residents’ and fellows’ right to assemble and to self-advocate, and have asked that participants adhere to our shared goal of professionalism while ensuring the safety of the patients we serve. To date, we have held 3 negotiation sessions. We will continue to negotiate in good faith with the RFPU-NW. Labor Relations’ recaps of the bargaining sessions can be found here.

We value our residents and fellows as important members of our care teams. We are negotiating in good faith on a variety of issues as we continue to support our residents and all of our employees.

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UW Medicine residents stage walkout at Seattle hospitals Wednesday