OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Following pickets at clinics across the West in July, union workers at Kaiser Permanente voted Wednesday to authorize what could be the largest health care worker strike in U.S. history.
Nearly 2,400 Bay Area employees could join a strike movement after nearly 70,000 SEIU union members in Colorado, California, Oregon, southwest Washington, Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., voted by a 94% margin to authorize protesting unfair labor practices. They would be in the company of thousands of workers striking in other industries, including those part of the United Auto Workers' walkout this month.
Workers began picketing this summer, nearly a year after holding a two-month strike that demanded the health giant overhaul its struggling mental health provider system. They cited frustration that Kaiser’s clinics are short-staffed and executives have resisted pay increases to keep up with high costs of living.
Negotiations with Kaiser are planned through Friday; the union's contracts are set to end on Sept. 30.
At issue are what workers call a series of unfair labor practices and bad faith: Staffing levels have dipped, causing dangerously long wait times, mistaken diagnoses and rushed in-person care. And after years of the Covid-19 pandemic and chronic understaffing, Kaiser’s proposals in negotiations included slashing performance bonuses for frontline workers, removing protections against subcontracting and outsourcing jobs to low-wage companies.
“Kaiser patients deserve better than the care we’re able to give them because of short staffing — and that is heartbreaking to say as a health care worker,” said Ebony Hughes, operator of services at Fremont Medical Center. “We have voted to authorize a strike because not only is Kaiser refusing to negotiate in good faith with frontline caregivers, but they’re ignoring the alarming patient care crisis at their facilities.”
Tamara Rubyn, president of OPEIU Local 29, said Kaiser must do better, noting the health giant has 4.6 million enrollees in Northern California alone.
“Kaiser used to be an industry leader, but now they’re failing to work together with frontline healthcare workers to solve a growing staffing crisis," Rubyn said. "And we’re all paying for it — our patients, their families, and the workers who provide their care."
The coalition and Kaiser Permanente last negotiated a contract in 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Now the coalition says that despite being a nonprofit organization, therefore paying no income tax on earnings and little in property taxes, Kaiser Permanente reported more than $24 billion in profit over the last five years. The company’s net worth doubled between 2018 and 2022 to $58.9 billion, and 49 of its executives earn more than $1 million annually.
In a recent survey of 33,000 employees, two-thirds of workers said they had seen patient care delayed or denied due to inadequate staffing.
Kaiser has long faced scrutiny for how it manages mental health treatment. The Department of Managed Health Care said in 2022 it would conduct a non-routine audit of Kaiser’s mental health services after handing down a $4 million fine for failure to provide adequate mental health treatment in 2013.
Shortage of clinicians is a major challenge, Kaiser has said. The company ended the 2022 National Union of Healthcare Workers strike with a four-year deal promising to fix problems in the system that leave patients waiting months for care.
The company released a video online Wednesday, titled “The true cost of a strike," after saying in a statement last Friday that a strike may not happen at all. It claimed health care costs are increasing as patient needs grow due to delayed care during the pandemic, along with increasing costs of drugs and supplies and growing labor costs.
Kaiser said it has proposed an enterprise-wide minimum wage starting at $21 an hour, countering the union members' request of a $26 per hour minimum wage.
"Last week we made a proposal to the Coalition that includes across-the-board wage increases of between 10% and 14% over four years — with additional lump sum payments in Southern California — on top of wages that are in many cases already significantly above the market rate for similar jobs," the company added.Follow @nhanson_reports
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