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Kaiser spared summary judgment in Colorado health care union’s suit over staffing shortages

Trial is set for next year over a Colorado labor union's claims that Kaiser thwarted collective bargaining agreements by failing to maintain adequate staff levels.

DENVER (CN) — A federal judge declined to grant summary judgment in a union’s lawsuit against a major health care company on Monday, finding both parties responsible for ensuring adequate staffing and that a trial would be necessary to determine which one was at fault for shortages.

“The court finds that genuine disputes of material fact remain as to whether the union’s actions violated its ‘mutual and ethical responsibility’ to assure ‘adequate coverage,’ among other things, under the collective bargaining agreement,” Senior U.S. District Judge William Martinez wrote in an 18-page opinion.

In October 2021, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local No. 7 sued the Kaiser Foundation Plan of Colorado and Colorado Permanente Medical Group claiming the health care companies failed to maintain adequate levels of staff as required by the union's collective bargaining agreements.

The union represents 23,000 workers in Colorado and Wyoming, including 2,000 of Kaiser's nurses and health care professionals. Since 2000, the agreements have tasked Kaiser with providing “sufficient staffing to address quality of standards of patient care and provider workload including safe coverage."

Kaiser countersued one year later, arguing the union breached its own contractual obligation “to assist Kaiser in resolving staffing related issues."

While the union asked the court to enter an injunction requiring Kaiser to hire more staff, Kaiser asked the court to order the union to stop interfering with its efforts to shore up staffing.

Kaiser says the union hindered its hiring efforts by opposing temporary staff, campaigning for reduced work schedules and encouraging workers to sue instead of filing internal complaints.

From 2018 through 2019, Kaiser restructured Colorado operations and reduced its workforce by 20%. Part of the shift meant transferring primary care employees to full-time work, including union members who had previously worked part time.

In 2020, Kaiser moved all urgent care workers to full-time positions against opposition from the union, which raised concerns over worker burnout and increased turnover.

Kaiser told the court it preferred full timers because it was unable to offer reduced benefits to part-time employees.

“While the court concludes as a matter of law that the patient care article creates a duty for Kaiser and the union to work in tandem to provide sufficient staffing, at this juncture of the litigation, it cannot make a similar finding with respect to the question of whether the union has breached the collective bargaining agreement’s patient care article,” wrote Martinez, a Barack Obama appointee.

Martinez scheduled a bench trial starting Jan. 13, 2025, to provide answers.

The union is represented by attorney Kristina Bush of the Highlands Ranch firm Robinson & Henry, who did not respond to a request for comment.

Attorney Laurene Rogers, at Holland & Hart in Boulder, represents Kaiser. A representative from the health care company declined to comment.

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