24,000 Kaiser workers could be heading for a strike, union says

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The union representing 24,000 registered nurses and healthcare professionals at Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente is looking at the option of striking amid dissatisfaction with contract proposals it says will make staffing shortages worse.

On Sept. 16, leadership from the 18 Kaiser affiliates of United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals voted to move forward with a vote among members to authorize the bargaining team to call a strike if needed, according to the union. The vote is scheduled from Oct. 1-10.

"Our last negotiations were on Sept. 10, and we've scheduled no new dates," Joe Guzynski, executive director of UNAC/UHCP, said in a news release. "We're focusing on in-depth conversations with our members about these issues and what to do next. With most of our contracts set to expire on Sept. 30, if Kaiser Permanente intends to force these wage cuts, it could lead to nationwide actions, including a strike."

Kaiser is currently in negotiations for a national contract with UNAC/UHCP, along with 20 other unions in the Alliance of Health Care Unions. The alliance covers more than 50,000 Kaiser workers on the West Coast and Hawaii, as well as Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., Georgia and Colorado.

UNAC/UHCP, which represents 24,000 Kaiser registered nurses and healthcare professionals, including pharmacists, rehab therapists, midwives and optometrists, said union members have reported not receiving the mental health support they need, and many reported staffing as the primary factor contributing to their strained mental health.

However, the union said Kaiser in recent negotiations proposed 1 percent raises to nurses and other workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic and proposed cutting wages of those coming after them.

"These proposals — certain to make staffing shortages worse — come as hospital systems across the country take the opposite approach, offering large raises, signing bonuses and other incentives in competition for the dwindling pool of nurses," the union said. "A flashpoint in the negotiations has been getting Kaiser Permanente to address chronic short staffing."

Arlene Peasnall, senior vice president of human resources at Kaiser, acknowledged the challenging pandemic circumstances and expressed gratitude for all of the work healthcare professionals have done.  

"We have worked hard to ease the stresses that this pandemic has caused our people. Since early in the pandemic response, Kaiser Permanente has provided nearly $600 million in employee assistance to ensure that our frontline employees had access to alternate housing, special childcare grants and additional paid leave for COVID-19 illness and exposure," she said in a statement shared with Becker's. "When it became clear at year-end that our workers' performance bonuses could be reduced by the effects of the pandemic, we instead chose to guarantee all eligible union-represented employees at least a 100 percent payout of their performance bonus, amounting to thousands of dollars a person on average."

Ms. Peasnall said the heart of the labor dispute is that healthcare is increasingly unaffordable, and escalating wages are half of the cost of healthcare.

Kaiser employees represented by the Alliance of Health Care Unions earn around 26 percent above the average market wage, and in some places it's 38 percent above market levels, she said. 

Ms. Peasnall said Kaiser on Aug. 25 offered a proposal that includes wage increases for all current employees and no changes to the current retirement plan. She said it also guarantees no wage cuts for current employees.

"These increases are on top of the already market-leading pay and benefits our employees receive, as confirmed by independent wage surveys and the government's own data compiled by CMS. To help address future costs and ensure we continue to be affordable for our members, we are proposing a market-based compensation structure for those hired in 2023 and beyond that will keep our new employees paid at 110 percent of market on average, enabling us to continue attracting and retaining top talent," she said.

Kaiser's labor-management partnership with the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals was created 24 years ago. The union has sent a formal notice to Kaiser that union members would "pause partnership activities" in light of what they say are Kaiser's proposed significant cuts to nurse wages and benefits.

Ms. Peasnall said the partnership "has a great track record of serving as the framework through which we can solve sometimes very difficult problems. Instead of abandoning it, in the spirit of the partnership we ask union leaders to continue to work constructively toward an agreement, rather than call on nurses to walk away from patients who need them during this pandemic."

The October vote regarding a strike authorization will be held online, according to the union. If the vote passes, it would not mean a strike would occur. However, it would give the bargaining team the option of scheduling a strike.

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