The exterior of a hospital in Santa Clara run by Kaiser Permanente
Frontline physicians at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Clara County plan to unionize. Photo by Moryt Milo.

Frontline physicians at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Clara County plan to unionize, and are the last Northern California group within the giant private hospital system to make the move.

More than 400 resident and fellow physicians across the Northern California Kaiser network want to join the Committee of Interns and Residents, a local branch of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), after Kaiser declined to voluntarily recognize the union. The effort will affect two Kaiser facilities in San Jose and Santa Clara and 120 physicians in the county, who on April 2 filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a union election.

“We feel we had gone through the appropriate channels in asking management for more competitive wages,”  Dr. Apoorva Dharmadhikari, a second-year internal medicine resident at the Santa Clara Kaiser location, told San José Spotlight. “We didn’t get the result we wanted.”

Resident and fellow physicians, who are finishing their post-graduate training, are the last of Kaiser’s workers without union recognition in Northern California. They would join clinical laboratory scientists, medical laboratory technicians, optometrists and other employees.

The Committee of Interns and Residents is the largest resident and fellow physician union in the county, representing more than 32,000 medical workers.

Doctors say they regularly work an average of 80 hours a week and provide most of the patient care. Even with their heavy workload, resident and fellow physicians said they’re struggling to make ends meet with the region’s high cost of living and housing.

In a statement, Kaiser Permanente said it supports an election through the National Labor Relations Board.

“We greatly value our medical residents and fellows and are committed to continuing to make Kaiser Permanente the best place to learn, work and provide care,” the health care provider said. “We respect our long-standing relationships with labor unions and the rights of our employees to make decisions about whether they want to be represented by a union.”

The Kaiser physicians’ union drive is the latest in a wave of hospital labor movements in Santa Clara County. Nurses at the county’s three hospitals — Santa Clara Valley Medical Center (VMC), O’Connor and St. Louise — went on strike earlier this month for better pay, but their dispute with county management continues, leaving a second strike on the table. Last year, nurses protested staffing shortages in front of Good Samaritan Hospital, which is privately owned by HCA Healthcare. Resident and fellow physicians at Stanford Health Care unionized in 2022, the same year county physicians threatened to strike at VMC but reached a deal with the county.

Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Inc. reported $100.8 billion in operating revenue for 2023 compared to $95.4 billion in 2022. Operating expenses were $100.5 billion compared to $96.7 billion the prior year. Factoring in Kaiser’s investment returns, the company reported $4.1 billion in net profit for 2023 compared to a net loss of $4.5 billion for 2022.

Valley Physicians Group Chair Dr. Rachel Ruiz, who represents the county physicians’ union, expressed support for her colleagues at Kaiser.

“It’s inspiring seeing the younger generation of physicians mobilizing earlier in their careers, because at that stage as a resident or fellow, working conditions can be quite atrocious,” Ruiz told San José Spotlight. “You really feel at the mercy of your institution and, as an individual, afraid to speak out or make waves because that next job depends on recommendations.”

Dharmadhikari said she and other physicians wrote a letter last June to Kaiser management asking for salaries to keep up with the Bay Area’s cost of living.

“Our first year residents make $72,000. I’m a second-year resident so I make $76,000. I think the exact wages we’re asking for will be a discussion once we get to the negotiation table,” Dharmadhikari told San José Spotlight.

Since residency programs throughout the Bay Area unionized in recent years, Dharmadhikari said most resident physicians are making at least $85,000.

“At the bare minimum, we want to have a platform to negotiate these things in the first place,” Dharmadhikari said.

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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