As the presence of corporate consolidators in the veterinary field increases, it has become even more important to understand what to look for when negotiating an associate contract with a corporate practice. Generally speaking, corporations can have a significant edge in negotiations because they can cause you to believe that their contracts are non-negotiable. They may, for example, say the following: “This is our contract for everyone.” In reality, everything is negotiable, and it’s your value that allows you to negotiate your own contract.
While it’s true you may have less negotiating power with a corporation than with a private practice, you will have more legal protection under the employment laws with a corporation. Ideally, all contracts should be reviewed by an attorney or translator experienced in reviewing veterinary employment agreements, because contracts are intended to prevent miscommunications in the future. Below are some key points to consider when negotiating a contract with a corporate consolidator (“CC”).
1. Term and Termination: How long will it be until your contract expires? Does the term automatically renew at this time? Note that, if a contract has a one-year term, that does not guarantee you a one-year employment. The employer may in fact have the ability to terminate you sooner. CCs like to use the term “at will,” meaning they can fire you at any time for any reason. Other ways of termination would be “without cause” with both parties agreeing to give “X” number of days’ notice before termination. Many CCs, though, will not want to give you advance notice, especially if they are taking over a new practice.
2. Schedule: How many scheduled hours per week are you required to work? Beyond that, how many additional hours must be spent calling owners, overseeing patient care, and more? Are there any required emergency hours? What about holidays, weekends, and nights? CCs tend not to give exact number of hours to be worked. They tend to use language such as “minimum of 40 hours” as opposed to “from 35-45 hours.” Specificity is against the interests of the CC.
3. Duties: What, as an associate, are you required to do? Review this, because some CCs may require you to do additional work that you didn’t need to do for old management. Do you, for example, have to organize staff meetings? Participate in marketing? Handle emergencies during work hours? Being specific in the contract almost always benefits the employee. Note that private practices tend to be more willing to mentor you in these duties than CCs.
4. Compensation: Typically, compensation is paid by salary, commission (production), or a combination of both. How is your production calculated? Do you get production reports? Are there any deductions from your salary and, if so, what are they? Is there negative accrual during slow production months? CCs can change how they calculate their production pay. If you’re not aware of how you get paid, you may not realize why your production pay has changed.
5. Benefits: Most practices offer some sort of benefits package, and CCs typically offer larger and better packages than private practices. However, these benefits can be subject to change and are not guaranteed by the employer. CCs tend to comply with state and federal employment laws that govern how benefits are given, while private practices may not, due to lack of knowledge. These benefits are tax deductible and are not calculated as employee income. Therefore, there is a large savings to be gained with a larger benefits package. This usually includes but is not limited to health insurance, professional liability insurance, and retirement benefits. Note that, if a CC offers malpractice insurance, it often does not cover license defense.
6. Exclusivity: Employers will usually require you to perform services for their hospital alone. This would prohibit you from doing any shelter or relief work on the side. This may even prohibit any other type of job, even if not related to veterinary medicine. CCs are no exception here, and you must negotiate specific exceptions if you wish to work outside of the CC.
7. Performance Evaluation: Will you be provided written or oral evaluations? When? Does this correlate to compensation?
8. Signing/Relocation Bonus: In today’s market, veterinarians are valuable and most places will offer some kind of sign-on bonus. CCs can usually offer a significantly higher bonus and, depending on where you are coming from, often offer a significant relocation allowance as well. Most of these bonuses are tied to retention, meaning you must work there for a predetermined amount of time—perhaps one year—to keep the bonus. If not, the money must be repaid. Also, in your contract, it’s important to find out if the bonus can be kept if you are fired without cause. One perk of working for CCs is that, if you are moving, they can often help you to relocate to another one of their locations, which can make the process significantly easier.
9. Non-Competition: The agreement states that the employee will not directly compete with the employer after termination of employment. The provision must state a specific distance and time (e.g., two years, ten air miles). This area should cover where 85% of the practice’s clientele comes from (trade area). When does your non-compete kick in? When does the non-compete become enforceable? CCs often have a much stricter policy than private practices. For example, some do not allow you to work in proximity to any of their hospitals. This could easily double or triple the area you could be prohibited from working in and can change if new hospitals open up. Also, the scope of restricted activity may be broader with CCs. In addition to small animal medicine, they may include intellectual property, research, practice management, and so forth.
10. Non-Solicitation: This agreement states that the employee will not try to poach other employees away from the business to work elsewhere. This would apply even if you are outside your non-compete area. It is important to also know that some CCs will not allow you to solicit employees from any location of theirs, even if you don’t personally know them.
11. Assignment: There is currently a very active market for the sale of veterinary practices. Many employers include provisions that allow your original contract to be signed over to the new owner. This means the buyer would not need to negotiate a new contract with you. It is important to check for this provision, whether you currently work for a private practice or already work for a CC.
It is important to understand all aspects of your contract while negotiating your associate contract to decrease any confusion during and after your contract period, whether a private or corporate practice. With the rise of corporations in the Veterinary industry, it is also important to note the differences between what a private practice and corporation could look like relating to an associate contract.
Try to make the contract as specific as possible so there is no ambiguity if an issue arises. Ask as many questions as you need prior to signing to clarify what exactly your job will entail. Always have the contract reviewed by a lawyer familiar with the field and do not feel pressured to sign prior to this. Corporations may be pushy and imply they do not negotiate, but this is your well-being and livelihood, not theirs. Know your value and pursue it in any contract.