Physician residents at Kern Medical Center, who have been hailed as key to securing new doctors for the community, protested canceled labor negotiation meetings and low pay Tuesday.
"Kern County is unfair, all we want is our fair share," chanted dozens of residents and hospital staff dressed in white coats and blue scrubs.
They carried signs declaring "Saving lives for $8.00 an hour," and "Kern County it's time to deliver," while circling the lawn on Flower Street outside the hospital's fence.
KMC's first-year residents are paid $1,557.65 biweekly, just shy of $40,500 a year, according to their current contract with the county. The salaried residents said they often work 80 hours or more a week, which translates to just more than minimum wage.
Average compensation for a first-year family medicine resident is $48,467, according to the American Medical Association's database of graduate medical education programs.
Local residents' pay increases gradually, topping out at $2,041.80 biweekly for fifth-year residents, about $53,000 a year. The mean stipend for a fifth-year resident in the West is $59,834, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges' 2012 survey.
KMC has more than 100 physician interns in its emergency medicine, family medicine, internal medicine, surgery, obstetrics and gynecology and psychiatry residency programs.
Staff from the Committee of Interns and Residents SEIU Healthcare and residents said they proposed a 15 percent raise this spring, but county staff have not brought a counterproposal and have cancelled three meetings to discuss the contract, which expires June 30. Union staff said residents last got a raise in 2008.
"I urge the county to meet us at the table. We've waited long enough," said Dr. Sarah Assem, a first-year internal medicine resident, at Tuesday's rally.
Assem, co-chair of the CIR committee at KMC, and other members of the bargaining team said their initial meetings with county staff went well. Meal issues were fixed and the county agreed to quarterly labor management meetings with hospital administration, they said. But the process has since stalled, Assem said, and meetings were called off after residents had stayed up long hours for them.
"Contract negotiations are supposed to be in good faith and I don't believe cancelling meetings with less than 24 hours notice is in any way good faith," she said.
Residents sent county staff a letter signed by about two-thirds of the participants in the programs and reached out to county supervisors, Assem said. They met with Supervisors Mick Gleason and Leticia Perez.
Perez seemed empathetic and informed, Assem said, as well as supportive of the raise. CIR in turn supported Perez's bid for the state Senate, Assem said.
Perez said Tuesday she remains "incredibly and strongly supportive" of the residents. "I think they deserve a fair wage for what they do," she said.
While she could not comment on the negotiations specifically, Perez said she is "confident that things are moving in a positive direction."
Assem said Gleason told representatives that it would be hard to negotiate because of tax issues with Occidental Petroleum Corp.
In an email, Gleason confirmed that he met with union representatives and said he told them the county "faces considerable challenges" and will see less property tax revenue in the coming year.
"I also commented that we do not know how these challenges will play out with the upcoming budget and its impacts on services," he wrote.
County Administrative Officer John Nilon said Monday he couldn't comment on the ongoing negotiations with KMC residents. A conference with labor negotiators regarding CIR was listed on the Kern County Board of Supervisors' Tuesday morning agenda; county staff said no reportable action was taken.
Residents said their contract issues have particular significance due to the county’s physician shortage and the deluge of new patients the Affordable Care Act is expected to generate.
Kern County's ratio of primary care doctors to population is almost half the national benchmark, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Better pay could attract better candidates to the hospital's residency programs, residents said.
"Bakersfield deserves well-rounded physicians. They deserve the competitive residents to come to KMC and then to stay here and open up their own offices because in the end, that's the goal of having a residency," Assem said.
An analysis by CIR SEIU Healthcare staff concluded KMC residents are the lowest paid in the nation.
"We did a pretty intensive online search and Kern kept coming up the lowest," said staffer Amy Hall.
KMC CEO Paul Hensler said he had not seen the data but doubted the county hospital ranked last.
Hall said the second-lowest paying residency program in the nation is at Doctor's Hospital of Michigan, which starts residents at $42,564 a year, according to the hospital's website. Even with a 15 percent raise, Kern's residents would still be the second-lowest paid in California, Assem said.
Most local residents have more than a quarter of a million dollars of debt, she said, and just want to make ends meet.
"I don't have even like a couple hundred bucks to make a loan payment a month after I pay the bills," she said.