Doctors in training at New York City's 11 public hospitals are demanding hazard pay as they work on the frontlines of the coronavirus crisis, underscoring the broader debate on how government should compensate essential workers who have risked their lives to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
The recent medical school graduates, known as hospital residents, have long been seen as being on the lowest rung of a rigid hierarchy. They are notoriously overworked, expected to work 80 hours a week, and relatively underpaid in a city with high living costs. The average salary for a first year resident within the city-funded public hospitals is $60,000 a year. Many of them owe hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans.
"At the end of the day it’s about respect," said Shaila Shatabdy, a union organizer with SEIU that represents over 17,000 physicians and fellows nationwide. "They feel forgotten, which is ironic because so much of the media coverage is about them."
About 2,325 full-time residents work at city hospitals. To date, nearly 2,000 of them have signed a petition asking NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation to grant them hazard pay, which would be a weekly bonus on top of their regular salaries.
On Wednesday, the union organized a virtual town hall meeting with Dr. Mitchell Katz, the CEO of NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation.
"As residents are we expendable?" asked Dr. Omokorede Apampa, who works at Woodhull hospital in Brooklyn. "We have a responsibility to our patients and our hospitals, and Dr. Katz, you have a responsibility to us."
During the forum, which was broadcast live on Facebook, several residents spoke about the emotional and physical toll of working six to seven days a week, witnessing patients dying by themselves, dealing with insufficient personal protective equipment, and receiving threats from management for speaking to the press about their experiences.
"Hazard pay would help to show that we are recognized for our work," said Dr. Noah Berland, who works at Kings County Hospital.
Berland noted that city hospitals, which largely serve low-income and minority communities, carried a disproportionate burden in treating coronavirus patients.
Although residents at city hospitals have long been aware of differences in pay and workplace policies between themselves and their private hospital colleagues, the coronavirus crisis has exacerbated the disparities. Other private voluntary hospitals such as Mount Sinai Medical Center and Maimonides Medical Center have adopted hazard pay by as much as $450 per week for residents.
Residents at Elmhurst hospital are acutely aware of what goes on at Mount Sinai, which is affiliated with Elmhurst. Residents of Elmhurst and Mount Sinai often rotate shifts between the two hospitals.
The city has also recruited out-of-state and retired physicians and nurse practitioners at much higher salaries. Some positions filled by private recruiting agencies have reportedly paid more than $10,000 a week. Those same healthcare workers are put up in hotels and are compensated for meals, while residents say they have been reliant on community donations of food.
Katz said that the recruited and volunteer workers were being funded through the federal government. A former union member himself, Katz said he supported the residents call for hazard pay, but added that the decision was not up to him.
"The city is in financial difficulty," he said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio last week announced a "wartime" budget that takes into account a projected tax-revenue loss of $7.4 billion because of the pandemic.
Katz pointed to a federal bill that would provide up to $25,000 in hazard pay for essential workers. Earlier this week, Governor Andrew Cuomo said he supported such a measure.
But the bill's passage is far from guaranteed, especially as states and cities hurt by the coronavirus are also vying for money in the next stimulus package.
"If that bill does not pass, I think that it is a complicated issue," Katz said.
The union has made some headway. On Wednesday, residents at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, which became the epicenter of outbreaks in New York City, learned that they would receive hazard pay of $300 per week retroactive to April 6th.
But union members, led by Dr. Ashley Bray of Elmhurst Hospital, called on the city to distribute hazard pay to all city hospital residents—and to make the amount retroactive to mid-March, when the first cases began arriving in hospitals.
Bray, who was quoted in a New York Times story about the siege of coronavirus patients at Elmhurst Hospital, said the issues that residents raised amounted to more than money, but that of feeling supported. She was among the residents who said they felt they were under a "gag order" from the city.
Katz denied that the city ever prohibited public hospital workers from speaking to reporters.
De Blasio has consistently praised the city's healthcare workers and has visited several city hospitals to thank the staff. On Tuesday, he announced plans to throw a parade for essential workers once the crisis was behind the city.
But Bray said the doctors don't need such fanfare.
"Save money on the parade and give us hazard pay," she said.