What's next for Penn Medicine physicians seeking unionization?

As resident physicians and fellows at Philadelphia-based University of Pennsylvania Health System seek to form a union, there are multiple factors that can dictate their path forward, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported Feb. 24. 

Residents and fellows who work for Penn Medicine asked the health system earlier this month to voluntarily recognize their union, the Committee of Interns and Residents, with a supermajority of them agreeing to union representation.

The NLRB provides various paths to forming a union. According to the labor board's website, the NLRB will conduct an election if at least 30 percent of workers sign cards or a petition indicating their support for unionization. Workers would then vote on whether to unionize. Employers may also voluntarily recognize a union based on signed union-authorization cards or other evidence. 

Since petitioning for voluntary union recognition, the physicians-in-training haven't received that recognition, prompting organizers to file with the NLRB for a union representation election, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Feb. 21 filing seeks an election for the union to represent about 1,500 interns, residents, chief residents and fellows.

Now that a petition has been filed, the NLRB will investigate the proposed union to ensure it meets the national labor law requirements before holding a union representation election, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Annie Della Fera, a spokesperson for the Committee of Interns and Residents, a local of the Service Employees International Union, told the newspaper the election process at other CIR units has typically taken about one or two months. Any challenges related to the petition and proposed union may also hold up the process. Additionally, there is a possibility that a union election may not be ordered at all or, if it is, that voting workers will not sign off on union representation.

Overall, reaching a first contract on behalf of workers who unionize usually takes about a year, Ms. Della Fera told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In their announcement regarding unionization efforts, physicians at Penn Medicine contend they have struggled for months to advocate to hospital management for improvements to their working conditions and patient care without success. Pay and workloads are among the issues they seek to address.

"As residents, we have very little power to improve working conditions or address important patient care needs through the official channels," Jackson Steinkamp, MD, a resident physician in internal medicine at Penn, said in a Feb. 17 union release. "But through our union, we will have a seat at the table to push for changes we need to best do our jobs."

A Penn Medicine spokesperson pointed to a previous statement shared with Becker's.

"We believe that our trainees will best be served by working directly with UPHS administration through our existing Graduate Medical Education Committee structure, which will continue its commitment to a collaborative, flexible approach which ensures strong human resources support for house staff," the statement reads. 

Penn Medicine also pointed to various investments in both compensation and benefits for trainees over the past five years, increasing salaries for first-year residents by nearly 18 percent, and "making wages highly competitive as compared to local and national peer institutions."

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