Kaiser health care workers begin three-day strike

Thousands of Kaiser Permanente health care workers began a three-day strike today in what their union says in the largest action of its type in U.S. history after contract negotiations failed to produce an agreement.   

The nationwide strike began at 3 a.m. on the East Coast, and strikes started at 6 a.m. in California.

Late Tuesday afternoon, a Kaiser spokesman told City News Service that talks were continuing “and could last into the night.”

According to Kaiser “several agreements over specific provisions have been reached” with the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, and the health system’s negotiators were prepared to meet around the clock “until we reach a fair and equitable agreement.”

The union, however, continued circulating plans for picketing — with 75,000 Kaiser workers expected to take part across California and several other states.

“Kaiser executives are refusing to listen to us and are bargaining in bad faith over the solutions we need to end the Kaiser short-staffing crisis,” Jessica Cruz, a licensed vocational nurse at Kaiser Los Angeles Medical Center — one of the planned picket locations — said in a statement released by the union Monday. “I see my patients’ frustrations when I have to rush them and hurry on to my next patient. That’s not the care I want to give. We’re burning ourselves out trying to do the jobs of two or three people, and our patients suffer when they can’t get the care they need due to Kaiser’s short-staffing.”

According to the union, picket locations include Kaiser facilities across the state, including in Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside and Orange counties. Picketing was also occurring in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Virginia and Washington, D.C.   

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Kaiser issued a statement Wednesday that rising inflation has led to a “massive surge” in expenses, and has made it tough for the company to balance taking care of its employees with being affordable to patients.   

“It’s our responsibility to continue to balance taking care of our employees and being more affordable to our patients, members and communities. Wages and benefits make up about half the cost of health care in America, so we all need to work together on that critical goal,” according to Kaiser.

“As noted in a recent report from the American Hospital Association, rising inflation has led to health care experiencing a `massive surge’ in expenses driven by  drugs and supplies, equipment shortages, staffing costs and supply chain disruptions,” the statement continued. “At the same time, in the wake of the pandemic, demand for care has increased dramatically, as people come in for care that has been delayed. Kaiser Permanente is not immune to these inflationary pressures.”  

The workers’ contract expired Saturday, but bargaining continued over the weekend and again Monday, Tuesday and through the night into Wednesday.   

Kaiser cited progress in the talks.   

“There has been a lot of progress, with agreements reached on several specific proposals late Tuesday,” according to Kaiser. “We remain committed to reaching a new agreement that continues to provide our employees with market-leading wages, excellent benefits, generous retirement income plans, and valuable professional development opportunities.”  

Among the workers involved in the strike are licensed vocational nurses, emergency department technicians, radiology technicians, ultrasound sonographers, teleservice representatives, respiratory therapists, X-ray technicians, certified nursing assistants, dietary services, behavioral health workers, surgical technicians, pharmacy technicians, transporters, home health aides, phlebotomists and medical assistants, union officials said.   

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The union has accused Kaiser of cutting performance bonuses for employees, failing to protect employees against subcontracting, offering wages that fail to keep pace with inflation and falling short in efforts to maintain adequate staffing levels.

“At issue, healthcare workers say, are a series of unfair labor practices related to bargaining in bad faith, along with simmering staff concerns related to unsafe staffing levels that can lead to dangerously long wait times, mistaken diagnosis, and neglect,” according to a statement from the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions. “After years of the COVID pandemic and chronic understaffing, Kaiser healthcare workers are calling on management to provide safe staffing levels.”  

According to Kaiser, the company is offering “across the board wage increases,” with a minimum wage starting at $21 an hour. The health care provider denied allegations it is slashing performance bonuses and raising premiums for members without any relation to health care costs or improvements in care.

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