Health system optometrists strike for recognition, fair labor practices

February 7, 2024
Doctors of optometry employed by the University of California system went on strike Feb. 6-7, after a year of efforts to secure an agreement to invest in the care they provide.
University of California Strike

Doctors of optometry employed by the University of California (UC) system went on strike against their employer this week, fighting for fair labor practices that enable them to provide the care their patients deserve. 

According to a press release from the University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE), for the past year UC, which employs over 100 optometrists, has refused to meet its legal requirement to bargain in good faith with optometrists. UPTE is a member-led union representing 18,000 health care, research and education professionals across the UC system, California’s community colleges and United States Department of Energy labs.  

The union filed unfair labor practice charges against UC with the state Public Employment Relations Board on Jan. 10, 2024. 

“Despite their efforts to secure an agreement that will invest in the care they provide, optometrists report increasing patient loads, short staffing and below-market pay. This leads to recruitment and retention issues, which result in delayed care for patients,” the release reads.  

Not only is optometrist pay significantly below what doctors at a comparable California HMO are paid, according to an UPTE information website, but optometrists within the UC system also receive compensation that is disparately low when compared to other health professions.   

The release details UC’s violations of state labor law, including: 

  • Failure to provide requested information in a timely manner that is necessary to bargain 
  • Making predictably unacceptable bargaining proposals 
  • Refusing to negotiate with UPTE over step placement for individual optometrists 

UPTE’s charge alleges that UC’s deceitful bargaining violates the Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act. UPTE’s bargaining team was authorized to call a protest to the system’s unfair labor practices and strikes were held Feb. 6 and 7 at UC health centers across the state. 

“This type of bad-faith conduct cannot go unchecked,” expressed Hai Tong, O.D., who works at UC Davis. “UC’s tactics are designed to prevent agreement rather than facilitate one, and they are unfair labor practices prohibited by law. Such actions by UC prolong the negotiation process and further exacerbate the existing issues—namely recruiting and retaining optometrists to provide world-class patient care. Our patients deserve better, and so do we.” 

“The California Optometric Association supports employed optometrists in exercising their legal rights to enhance their professional status and working conditions,” adds Candi Kimura, O.D., California Optometric Association president. 

An optometry union? 

Physician-level unions are most often found at a single, larger employer such as a government entity or a large health system, where they are able to bargain over matters such as salaries, staffing levels and working conditions.  

As doctors are faced with abusive policies of vision plans, some have contacted the AOA to inquire about a unionization strategy. Michael Stokes, Esq., AOA general counsel, has provided the key basics for informed discussion in a Q&A brief.  

AOA members can contact Stokes or the AOA Board of Trustees with questions or comments on this or any issue facing your practice. 

AOA taking action for fair reimbursement and patient care 

While the AOA cannot formalize a union, action has been taken to fight for doctors. 

The AOA and affiliates have deployed a multi-pronged approach to achieving reimbursement and coverage fairness. During the past year, this approach has met with success—accomplishments that the AOA will build on with an ever-greater advocacy in 2024. The AOA is committed to exploring all possible options to bring relief to doctors and put them back into a position of authority. 

Reach out to the AOA legal and advocacy team at stopplanabuses@aoa.org with questions, comments or an interest in joining the profession-wide mobilization to fight for patients, practices and the profession. 

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