100K Kaiser Permanente workers poised to strike next week

100K Kaiser Permanente workers poised to strike next week


Labor unions representing more than 100,000 Kaiser Permanente healthcare workers in California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington are planning strikes and walkouts beginning next week to protest a lack of progress in contract negotiations.

At least 32,000 Kaiser Permanente employees who have worked without a contract since Oct. 1 plan to begin an open-ended strike Monday unless their unions come to an agreement with the Oakland, California-based not-for-profit integrated health system before then. They will join about 750 northern Kaiser Permanente engineers in California who have been on strike since mid-September over wages and working conditions. Over the next week, other unions representing Kaiser Permanente employees plan to strike or participate in a one-day sympathy strike Nov. 18 in support of their colleagues.

“For months, we’ve tried to engage with [Kaiser Permanente] executives on how we can work together to address critical staffing concerns, only to be patronized and rebuffed at every turn,” Roland Lucas, a physical therapist at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Clara, California, and a member of United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals’ negotiating team, said in a news release. “Striking is always a healthcare professional’s last resort, which should underline the severity of the situation.”

Numerous unions representing a wide variety of employees are engaged in contract talks. The biggest player is the Alliance of Health Care Unions, a coalition of 21 labor organizations including United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals, Hawaii Nurses and Healthcare Professionals, and the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals. Other groups representing Kaiser Permanente employees include the Service Employees International Union and the National Union of Healthcare Workers.

Strike notifications that aren’t followed by actual work stoppages are a common negotiating tactic, Arlene Peasnall, senior vice president of human resources at Kaiser Permanente, said in a statement.

“We are still hopeful that any labor disruption will be averted through our continued negotiations. We believe continued discussion at the bargaining table is the best way to resolve issues and differences and reach an agreement, and we take seriously any threat to disrupt care, especially as we continue to battle this pandemic,” Peasnall said.

Tensions are high right now nationwide between employers and workers, in large part because there are so many unknowns when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, said Jeffrey Daltz, co-chair of the labor and employment practice group for the law firm Hall Booth Smith.

“The problem is that sitting there, locking in and committing to wages and benefits, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Daltz said. And employers already are feeling squeezed by the pandemic, which has made workers hard to find and operations more challenging, he said.

One major obstacle to a deal between Kaiser Permenente and its unions is the two-tiered wage system that Kaiser Permanente proposed, which would offer lower compensation to new hires compared to current employees.

Tiered pay arrangements are “toxic” because they pit workers against one another and threaten the strength of the union, said Dave Regan, president of the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, which represents 58,000 Kaiser Permanente employees. The union’s members are currently voting on whether to authorize a sympathy strike.

Kaiser Permenente is using the COVID-19 pandemic as cover to “bargain very, very aggressively,” Regan said. “It’s just absolutely wrong you would use a pandemic and you would attempt to extract concessions from people who have been doing extraordinary work,” Regan said.

The health system sees things differently and cites rising costs for its resistance to give in to unions’ demands.

“The fact is, wages and benefits account for half of Kaiser Permanente’s operational costs. We are asking our labor unions to work with us to address this very real problem, just as we have done with other challenges over the course of our relationship,” Peasnall said.

In the third quarter, Kaiser Permanente had a 0.2% operating margin, compared to 2.1% a year earlier, a decline driven by an influx of costly COVID-19 patients, according to the company.

The health system and the unions face potentially high expenses if strikes go forward, Daltz said.

“It’s tough to finance a strike. It’s very difficult for both sides,” Daltz said. Employers not only have to bring in contingency staff for striking workers but they also may need to arrange for security on the picket line, he said. Unions typically compensate striking workers using money set aside for labor actions, but those funds are limited.

Kaiser Permanente workers would rather not strike, said Debru Carthan, a lead radiologic technologist at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Modesto, California. Carthan is a member of the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West and has worked at the health system for 25 years.

“At the end of the day, our patients miss us when we’re not there,” Carthan said. But “morale is low,” she said.

“Kaiser used to be the best place to work. Everybody wanted to get into Kaiser. Now, people are just like, ‘I don’t want to be here,’ and that’s not good,” Carthan said. “You have an employer that’s fighting against you.”


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