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California Kaiser Workers Authorize Strike as Contract Negotiations Continue

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a group of people in matching shirts hold signs and protest outside
Thousands of health care workers march in Los Angeles on Sept. 4 to call for the need for improved working conditions, better support systems and increased investment in the workforce at Kaiser Permanente. The event was organized by SEIU-UHW West.  (Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Nearly 60,000 Kaiser Permanente workers, mostly based in California, voted overwhelming in favor of going on strike if a fair contract agreement is not reached by the end of September, setting the stage for what could be the largest health care industry walkout in U.S. history.

The strike authorization was supported by 98% of Kaiser workers — ranging from lab technicians to respiratory therapists to cooking staff — who are represented by SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West, the union announced Thursday. It comes amid ongoing worker demands for significant pay raises and more robust staffing, as Kaiser and other large health care providers continue to struggle with severe understaffing and strained caseloads.

“Being understaffed and being not appropriately compensated for the amount of work that they put on our plate, we had no choice but to collectively agree to authorize a strike,” said Rashaad Pritchett, who works as housekeeping aide at a Kaiser facility in Richmond, where he cleans and sanitizes operating rooms and other sensitive health space.

The Healthcare Staffing Crisis

Born and raised in Richmond, Pritchett says his wages have failed to keep pace with inflation and the rising cost of living.

“Over the next four years, we want to make sure that we will have livable wages. At the end of our career we want to make sure that we will be taken care of,” said Pritchett. “We are all fighting for what we believe is right. It’s not a vindictive approach, but it’s like, ‘OK, you have forced our collective bargaining hand.’”

Workers argue that staffing levels have sunk dangerously low as many practitioners have left the field because of burnout. Kaiser workers are calling on their employer to increase staffing levels in order to reduce workloads.

The workers — some of whom are based in Oregon and Washington — are pushing for a 7% wage increase in the first two years of this next contract, and a 6.25% increase the following two years.

Sponsored

In its proposal, Kaiser offered across-the-board wage increases of between 10–14% over four years, as well as a minimum performance bonus aimed to prevent any employees from receiving no payout. Kaiser also offered a blanket $21 per hour minimum wage.

But union leaders last week rejected the company’s most recent offer. They said the new minimum would limit performance bonuses for frontline workers, arguing that will only result in increased turnover, further straining the workforce and diminishing the quality of care.

The union is also seeking a $25 per hour minimum wage for employees.

That pay bump would align with a California bill currently making its way through the Legislature that would increase all California health care workers’ minimum wage to $25 per hour.

The Legislature also recently approved a bill that would provide unemployment insurance benefits to workers on strike.

“Every one of these proposals from Kaiser will make staffing problems worse and continue to delay care to patients,” Dave Regan, president of SEIU-UHW, said in a press release announcing the vote. “Kaiser has failed to bargain in good faith with the caregivers, who are doing everything they can to protect patient safety.”

Kaiser insists that it has continued to bargain in good faith. In an email, Kaiser refuted many of the claims the union made about their proposal. The company also pointed to rising costs for drugs, supplies and labor due to inflation, which has been “driving up the cost of health care as well.”

Despite the impasse, representatives for the Oakland-based health care giant said they are “confident” a deal can be reached by Sept. 30.

“We have two more bargaining sessions scheduled for next week. Our priority is to reach an agreement that ensures we can continue to provide market-competitive pay and outstanding benefits,” a spokesperson for Kaiser said in an email to KQED. “We are confident we’ll reach an agreement before the national agreement expires on Sept. 30 that strengthens our position as a best place to work and ensures that the high-quality care our members expect from us remains affordable and easy to access.”

In a recent union-led survey (PDF) of about 33,000 Kaiser workers, more than 80% of respondents said they were in understaffed departments, and 65% said they had seen care delayed or denied to patients due to those staffing challenges. Nearly half said they regularly have to skip meals or breaks to keep up with their workloads.

“Our patients expect more from a health care system that reported $3 billion in profits in the first half of this year alone, and so do we,” Nahid Bokaee, a Kaiser pharmacist in Sterling, Virginia, said in a recent press release about the looming strike vote. “Kaiser can afford to end this dangerous understaffing, but they choose not to.”

The company claims it has filled 8,700 of the 10,000 positions it has committed to fill by the end of 2023.

The union representing Kaiser employees in California is part of the broader Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, which represents about 88,000 employees in seven states, including Colorado, Oregon and Washington, where local unions have also recently approved going on strike.

The latest strike authorization vote comes amid an uptick in labor actions across the country, particularly within the health care industry.

Nearly 2,000 Kaiser mental health care workers in Northern California went on strike last year for 10 weeks over many of the same staffing and pay issues that workers today are protesting. Earlier this month, 23 health care workers were arrested while protesting outside a Kaiser hospital in Hollywood. Nurses in Minnesota voted twice but ultimately avoided a strike in 2022, citing low pay and rapid turnover.

KQED reporter Farida Jhabvala Romero contributed to this report.

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