COVID-19 has created new legal issues for physicians in Minnesota, while some other typical issues they face have continued or been exacerbated. Below, I address five of the most common legal issues for physicians today.
Salary reductions due to COVID-19
Since the pandemic began, numerous physicians in Minnesota have been subjected to pay and hour reductions. While these cuts ostensibly stem from the economic impact of the pandemic, employers’ communications about them have often lacked transparency. Employers have failed to share enough information to allow the employees to understand whether they are being treated, fairly given the circumstances, and similarly to other employees. Employers have also made these cuts without agreeing to issue the lost pay when the employer’s financial condition improves or if the employer’s revenue declines less than predicted.
When faced with salary cuts, it is important for physicians to understand what their employment contracts state regarding their compensation, including whether it can unilaterally adjusted by the employer and, if so, whether the employer is limited regarding when or how frequently such adjustments can be made. Working with counsel, as a group or individually, can help protect against the employer’s overreach.
Safe working environments
Physicians and other healthcare workers have the same right to a safe work environment as other Minnesota workers. As such, physicians can refuse to work in a workplace that puts them in imminent danger of death or serious physical harm. These protections require employers to take their physician-employees’ well-being seriously – which is exactly what Minnesota needs as our healthcare providers provide care needed by Minnesotans. As the pandemic continues, these protections are more important than ever.
Pre-COVID issues like non-compete restrictions continue to pose legal and practical challenges for Minnesota’s physicians. In response to the pandemic, many physicians have had to adjust both their medical practice and their lifestyle. This has led physicians to explore moving or changing employers; others have sought to supplement their now-reduced income, by moonlighting or adding in locums work. Non-compete restrictions can pose obstacles for each of these plans, as reasonable non-competes are enforceable in Minnesota, and they apply to physicians, just like any other employee. Getting legal advice on the scope and enforceability of these restrictions – ideally before taking on new work – is key.
Discipline and termination issues
Through their employment contracts and their employer’s bylaws, physicians generally have more safeguards protecting them from unjust termination than other employees. These protections, however, have been strained at times during the pandemic. The pandemic has delayed processes for challenging employer discipline and suspensions, whether caused by difficulty in coordinating the logistics of medical executive committee meetings/hearings or the closure of some national recertification/rehabilitation programs. Working with counsel through these issues can help ensure that your rights are protected.
Double standards for female physicians
Finally, women in medicine continue to face significant obstacles, including pay disparities, partnership delays, and being held to higher standards than their male colleagues. We continue to see hospitals failing to protect their female physicians from their co-workers’ discriminatory stereotypes and expectations. This disparate treatment is illegal and can weigh down physicians, and damage the career opportunities of doctors who are undeniably successful when measured objectively.
At Schaefer Halleen, we have experience advising physicians on each of these issues. If you are facing any of them, we would value the opportunity to advise and help you through them.