Medical residency is the final stretch of the higher education marathon required to become a practicing physician in the United States. Even in the best of times, residency is notorious for its grueling hours, low wages, and a culture that discourages trainees from demanding better conditions. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the already arduous position became all the more dangerous and distressing.
The New Yorker tells the story of Nicholus Warstadt, an NYU Langone Health Hospital resident who was “redirected from a pediatrics emergency room to a COVID-19 respiratory unit.” Warstadt was one of the hundreds of NYU residents that signed onto a petition requesting increased life insurance, disability insurance, hazard pay, a guarantee that the program standing of the residents’ will not be affected by COVID-19 related absences, and coverage for the testing and treatment of COVID-19.
The situation soured quickly when the hospital administration caught wind of the petition. The administrators, some of whom take home millions of dollars in compensation annually, denied the residents’ requests for hazard pay as well as enhanced insurance benefits, citing the “increasing financial uncertainties for all of our institutions”. There is no doubt that financial strain was felt throughout the entire U.S. medical system as profitable elective procedures were cancelled due to the pandemic, however both Mount Sinai hospital system and New York-Presbyterian were able to offer some form of hazard pay (though Mount Sinai suddenly rescinded the benefits a month after they kicked in).
In addition to the denial, the administration accidentally forwarded an email chain to residents where they had discussed the request for hazard pay. According to The New Yorker, one of the medical chairs at the hospital written that “Now is the time to accept the hazards of caring for the sick . . . rather than focusing on making a few extra dollars,” and “I am not indifferent to your anxieties but personally feel demanding hazard pay is not becoming of a compassionate and caring physician.” Another email from a director sought the names of residents under his charge that signed onto the petition, which some residents felt was threatening.
Residents, some anonymous, shared their feelings about the accidentally forwarded emails on social media and with different news outlets. Some residents felt gaslit by the emails and upset that their integrity and compassion were being called into question for simply asking for compensation commensurate with the increased workload and risk (to both themselves and their families) associated with the pandemic.
A few days after the ordeal, NYU Langone Health Hospital announced their plans to retroactively instate a resident pay raise that was scheduled for July 1st to April 1st and to raise funds philanthropically to help offset the financial burden some residents were experiencing, particularly those with partners who had lost their jobs due to the pandemic. In addition, according to The New Yorker, NYU Langone Health Hospital “eventually agreed to double its life-insurance coverage for non-unionized residents and fellows”. Though it is not the hazard pay they asked for, some residents were too emotionally exhausted by the pandemic workload and the petition exchange to push the issue further for the time being.