May 18th, 2023
VETERINARIAN EMPLOYMENT CONTRACTS by Jim Vogele
Even if you’ve never seen All Creatures Great and Small, who doesn’t love a good veterinarian?
Certainly, every good dog loves a good veterinarian (with cheese snacks). And speaking of cheese snacks, my wife won’t allow our good dog to have cheese, yet, when I take our dog to the vet, I see the staff spreading a cheesy substance directly on the floor where our dog happily licks it up. While this calls into question my wife’s prohibition against cheese, there are, thankfully, more than enough other options to please our tail-wagging gourmand. According to the dictionary, a “gourmet” is a diner who appreciates good food, whereas a “gourmand” is a diner who is more interested in the quantity of food rather than the quality. Our lovely and very good dog is definitely more gourmand than gourmet.
And when it comes to good dogs, almost everyone thinks that theirs is one. When it comes to veterinarian employment contracts, however, not all contracts are created equally ‘good.’ You may find that veterinarian employment agreements have many of the same complications that one finds in physician employment contracts: overbroad restrictive covenants, uncertain compensation terms, and one-sided termination provisions.
If you have any significant questions about your veterinarian employment contract, you may wish to engage an experienced employment contract attorney to review the agreement, to explain its terms and conditions, and to identify any red flags or issues that could be subject to negotiation. A veterinarian contract review is not expensive and probably worth exploring.
Veterinary Employment Contracts
Employment contract law, when it comes to working with veterinarian contracts is not unlike working with any other employment contract law. Most veterinarian contracts include contractual provisions that are similar to what you will see in any other health care provider contract.
In short, I have found that my experience working with physician employment contracts, dentist employment contracts, optical healthcare employment contracts, therapist and counselor employment contracts is directly relevant to veterinarian employment contracts.
I routinely provide veterinarian contract reviews of DVMs with:
- Oregon veterinarian contracts;
- Washington veterinarian contracts;
- California veterinarian contracts; and
- Montana veterinarian contracts.
Note also that I have worked on employment contract issues for dog boarding employment contracts and dog walking and dog sitting employment contracts as well as policies and employee handbooks for small businesses providing those same services.
The article below touches upon a few of the key provisions you will find in your veterinarian employment contract.
Whether you have an Oregon DVM contract, a Washington DVM contract, a California DVM contract, or a Montana DVM contract, your employment agreement will certainly address your compensation.
Your veterinarian employment contract may include a variety of approaches to compensation, including:
- Percentage of revenues;
- Shift compensation;
- Straight salary;
- Base salary plus production pay;
- and/or any combination of the above.
Within these broad parameters, you might be paid based upon the number of shifts you complete, or by a percentage of revenue, or you may be paid a guaranteed amount of compensation as an annual salary.
There are other compensation models as well. Healthcare provider compensation is its own niche industry within an industry and much ingenuity may have been involved in the development of your compensation. If I can’t understand the plan, which is rare but possible, I will advise you to ask the employer for clarification (I can also ask, but it’s less expensive if the DVM handles this directly – and note that I can help any healthcare provider to fashion their questions and negotiation points so as to be polite and professional).
Bonuses and Relocation Reimbursement
You may receive a one-time hiring bonus at the outset of your employment. These are typically paid after you commence working, e.g. on your first paycheck, or on the first paycheck after 30 days of employment.
You may also receive reimbursement for relocation expenses as part of your veterinarian employment contract benefits. This is more in the nature of a benefit as opposed to compensation, because it is most often tied to specific receipts that you present to your employer as opposed to a lump sum. In any event, it will be a taxable sum.
If you do receive a signing or hiring bonus and/or relocation expense reimbursement, this may be subject to repayment terms based upon how long you remain employed. Repayment terms may be finely-tuned (earned in part for each month worked or even each day worked, as in 1/365) or may be based upon years of employment, whereby if the veterinarian terminates employment in the first year, the entire bonus must be repaid, after one year but before two years of employment, the employee will repay 50% and after three years of employment the bonus is considered fully-earned with no repayment obligation.
While it is important to consider your obligations concerning bonuses, after many years of education and training and/or after relocating to a new home for a new job, signing bonus provisions or relocation provisions in a contract are a good ‘problem’ to have.
Veterinarian employment contracts will often specify benefits, including:
- Stipend for continuing education
- Paid vacation or PTO
- Insurance benefits that can vary widely
- Perhaps student loan repayment assistance
- And a wide variety of other options.
Term of Employment
Generally, you will see a set term of, e.g., one year in a veterinarian employment contract.
You will also see, however, a termination without cause (or “at will”) provision, whereby either party, veterinary employer or veterinarian employee, may terminate the agreement. This termination notice provision can range from 30 days to 90 days or more – there is no particular legal requirement for a notice of without cause termination provision. Note also that across the field of healthcare professions, “at will” termination provisions require a good amount of time for providing notice, whereas a true “at will” relationship by definition means that either party may terminate at any time, with or without cause.
Because healthcare professions require substantial time for employees’ job searching and employer hiring, as well as time to address licensing, credentialing, privileging and so forth, the norm is to establish contracts that are “at will” in the sense that they can be terminated by either party without cause, but also to include a contractually-required amount of notice period for at-will or without cause termination. You will always want to follow the requirements of the notice of termination provision, because failing to so could provide grounds for an employer to file a breach of contract action (seeking damages).
If you have any questions about terminating a veterinarian employment contract, you should speak with a veterinarian employment contract attorney.
Like any healthcare employment contract, a veterinarian employment contract will generally set forth the general duties of the Doctor of Veterinarian Medicine (“DVM”). These provisions are typically vague and may say only something to the effect that the employee will be engaged in the practice of veterinary medicine. A lack of specificity here is not cause for concern, and if details concerning the nature of the veterinarian’s job duties were required, it would likely be found in a contractual Amendment, Addendum, Exhibit or Appendices (all refer to an attachment to the main body of the contract, which can also be used to change specific contract terms in the future, such as an increase in salary or significant change in schedule or responsibilities.
Work schedules are variable, of course. Many if not most veterinarian contracts may be vague as to schedule, which is often addressed during the interview process. In any event, the DVM contract may simply say that schedule is to be determined by the employer. It’s always nice to see the words “mutually agreed upon,” but that’s not necessarily the norm.
If there are call obligations, it’s a good idea to understand those up front, even though they may well not be spelled out in any detail. “Equitably shared” or similar language is often used for call obligations.
Professional Liability Insurance
Treatment of malpractice insurance varies among veterinarian employers. Some may require the employee to pay for professional liability insurance while others will provide assistance or cover the expense.
If you are entering into a Washington veterinarian contract, Oregon veterinarian contract, or Montana veterinarian contract, you may be subject to a noncompete; indeed, you “probably will” is likely a more accurate statement. As you may know, if you’re signing a California veterinarian contract, your contract should not contain a noncompete agreement.
Restrictive covenants, including nonsolicitation and nondisclosure agreements, and particularly noncompetition provisions, are important and sometimes complicated enough that, should you have any serious questions about the interpretation of a restrictive covenant in a veterinarian contract, consultation with a veterinarian contract review attorney is generally a good idea. Regardless, however, read the language closely and plan your future accordingly. Because I work more often with MDs and DOs than with DVMs, I’ve seen issues around noncompetes and nonsolicitation provisions play our more frequently in that context. But I have helped many veterinarians understand the scope and enforceability of their noncompete provisions and other restrictive covenants as well. If you will or may need to relocate should you leave employment with a veterinarian employer, you will want to know that up front when you accept the position, rather than ‘reading about it’ in your contract later when you are ready to leave.
These days, it is very likely that your veterinarian employment contract will contain an arbitration provision. As with restrictive covenants, you should also clearly understand this provision and review it closely, even though one hopes you’ll never need to use it. But an arbitration provision will not be subject to negotiation with your employer. If your employer includes an arb provision in their standard contract, they will not be willing to drop that provision.
“Boilerplate provisions” refer to general contract terms – such as an integration clause, non-assignment clause, venue and governing law provisions, waiver, survival, and perhaps an attorney’s fees clause. A veterinarian contract review attorney can quickly explain the significance of such provisions if you have questions.
As mentioned, I work with veterinarian employment contracts in Oregon, California, Washington, and California. Whether you are a new veterinarian or have many years of experience, if you have question about a new contract you have been asked to sign, or questions of interpretation about an existing contract, I would be happy to help you to understand your employment agreement terms and sort out the parties’ respective duties and obligations.
Long before I ever knew what an employment contract is, I grew up on a small farm in Eastern Montana. The primary vet in our town was an amiable gentleman whom our family respected highly. As veterinarians do in ranching and farming country, there would be occasions when the vet would make a house-call. I recall there was always a sense of relief when a professional healthcare provider would arrive to help with a sick animal or perhaps with birthing, although a farm family also learns to handle many of these situations because time would not always allow for a doctor’s visit in any event.
Because I like to include an occasional literary reference or even book review in my writing about employment contracts (which are not per se the most interesting topic in the world, I will admit), I wanted to mention a short story recently published in The New Yorker on March 6, 2023. “How I Became a Vet,” by Rivka Galchen, was an excellent read. Galchen’s piece tells the story of a veterinarian who appears to be most adept at dealing with animals and who is perhaps less comfortable with the people who bring animals to her for healthcare.
“How I Became a Vet” is a beautiful story and I hope yours is as well. You are working in an honorable and admirable profession