Looming Kaiser Strike Could Delay COVID, Flu Shots

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A large office building with the words "Kaiser Permanente" written on it.
Kaiser Permanente headquarters in downtown Oakland on Jan. 5, 2020. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Nearly 75,000 Kaiser Permanente health care workers across six states, including California, plan to strike beginning Oct. 4 if ongoing contract negotiations don’t result in an agreement very soon.

The impending strike, which could be the largest health care strike in U.S. history, would impact nearly 68,000 employees in California — ranging from optometrists to emergency room technicians and housekeeping workers — for at least three days. While Kaiser is prepared to continue most health services, a strike could impact some care needs, including COVID vaccines and flu shots, Kaiser representatives told KQED in an email.

“There’s going to be some disruption to care that’s not urgent,” Janet Coffman, professor at the Healthforce Center at UCSF, told KQED. “The bigger issue is how long the strike will be. If it goes beyond three days, then I think we are looking at more disruptions and more difficulties for people to get the COVID-19 vaccine and other care services they need.”

Last month, employees represented by Kaiser’s coalition of labor unions overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike if a deal was not reached by Sept. 30, when their contract expired.

The Coalition began bargaining in April. As of Oct. 2, a new contract had not yet been reached and negotiations are ongoing.

Starting Wednesday, Kaiser employees plan to picket outside facilities across the Bay Area, including in Antioch, Fremont, Oakland, Richmond, Redwood City, San Francisco, South San Francisco, San José, San Leandro, Santa Clara, Walnut Creek, Vacaville, Manteca, Roseville, Santa Rosa and Vallejo.

Understaffing and wages are two issues Kaiser workers say they are most concerned about as negotiations continue.

Savonnda Blaylock, a pharmacy technician at Kaiser in Tracy, helps order flu and COVID vaccines for her facility. But due to staffing shortages, she said patients already face delays in order to receive shots that they need.

“We are suffering. We have had a lot of people leave during and after the pandemic. Unfortunately, those physicians have not been replaced and we don’t know if they will ever be replaced,” Blaylock told KQED.

“Patients are having very long delays in care where they can’t get the vaccines they need, they can’t come in to see their physicians, because we don’t have physicians for them to be seen. That’s where the lapse in care comes, and where we are not able to accommodate patients,” said Blaylock.


Another factor impacting vaccine availability, however, is the fact that Kaiser in California just recently received its supply of doses in the last two weeks.

“Since the FDA authorized the updated COVID-19 vaccine, large-scale distribution has been a challenge for vaccine providers nationwide, including Kaiser Permanente,” a spokesperson for Kaiser said in an email. “However, we have now received our supply and expect a consistent supply of the vaccine going forward.”

Currently, the COVID-19 vaccine is available by walk-in at some Kaiser locations.

Regardless of the looming strike, the slow rollout for the COVID-19 vaccine this year has had many people clamoring to secure vaccine appointments.

Now, other pharmacies are gearing up to take on additional patients who are seeking vaccines if they can’t get them through Kaiser.

“We are committed to ensuring no patient pays and everyone who is eligible and wants a vaccine receives one,” a spokesperson for Walgreens told KQED in an email statement. “We encourage everyone to bring insurance information to their appointment if available but will not turn away those whose insurance does not cover it.”

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Kaiser is the largest private, nonprofit, health care organization in the U.S., serving more than nine million people in California.

Based on similar labor disputes and strikes at Kaiser and other health care giants, Coffman of UCSF said it’s possible that elective surgeries like knee and hip replacements and other non-emergency health care services could be impacted if a strike goes beyond this week.

“We call them elective, but often for the people who are getting them, they’ve been in pain for quite some time and further delay just exacerbates that,” Coffman said.

Kaiser workers in California — as well as in Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Virginia and Washington, D.C. — are demanding their employer increase staffing. Workers are pushing for a 7% wage increase in the first two years of a new contract, and a 6.25% increase the following two years.

Employees are also seeking to raise the minimum wage across the board to $26 by 2026.

In a recent 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 recently offered a $23 per hour minimum wage for its employees in California starting in 2024.

“We lead total compensation in every market where we operate, and our proposals in bargaining would ensure we keep that position,” a spokesperson for Kaiser said in an email. “In some places, a Kaiser Permanente employee leaving for a similar job at another organization would face a 20-plus percent pay cut, and lower benefits.”

Meanwhile, the California Legislature recently passed a state bill that would boost all California health care workers’ minimum wages to $25 per hour. The bill is now awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature.

The Legislature also recently approved a bill providing unemployment insurance benefits to workers on strike — but Newsom vetoed that bill on Saturday.

The most recent Kaiser strike comes a year after 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.

“We just want Kaiser to end the short staffing crisis,” said Blaylock, the Kaiser pharmacy technician. “It can happen at the click of the fingers.”