Kaiser prepares for workers to join engineers in sympathy strike

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Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente is preparing for a strike by potentially tens of thousands of workers in Northern California.

Kaiser and the Guild for Professional Pharmacists announced a tentative agreement Nov. 15 for a new three-year contract for pharmacists in Northern California. Kaiser and the Alliance of Health Care Unions also reached a tentative four-year contract Nov. 13, averting a strike by alliance unions.

However, Kaiser has not reached an agreement with International Union of Operating Engineers Stationary Engineers Local 39, whose members have been striking at Kaiser facilities in Northern California since September. 

The stationary and biomedical engineers are concerned about a proposed wage increase they say will ensure lower pay compared with engineers at other large providers in Northern California, according to The Sacramento Bee.

Kaiser has said the engineers are among the highest-paid people in their profession based on their total compensation, according to the newspaper. 

Members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers and members of the California Nurses Association announced they are prepared to strike in sympathy with the engineers on Nov. 19. About 2,000 Kaiser mental health clinicians and about 20,000 nurses from those unions are slated to participate in the walkout. 

Additionally, Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West's 36,000 Kaiser members in Northern California are planning a one-day sympathy strike Nov. 18 in solidarity with Kaiser engineers. The union said members of Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 29 and International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 20 are also prepared to walk out in support of the engineers.

"We are sympathy striking because Kaiser has lost its way and is putting its drive for profits over people, hurting our patients and union co-workers. The Local 39 engineers play a critical role in maintaining our facilities and the equipment we use to take care of patients," Ethan Ruskin, a health educator at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in San Jose, Calif., said in a news release. "Kaiser needs to put patients first and deliver a fair contract to the engineers."

The strike is expected to affect Kaiser medical centers in Northern California.

Kaiser said the strike might affect some non-urgent medical procedures or appointments, and some services including lab, optometry and radiology may also be closed or reduced, according to The Mercury News.

Kaiser said its facilities will be staffed by its trained and experienced managers as well as contingency staff as needed. 

In a statement shared with Becker's, Kaiser announced other precautionary measures because of the potential effects of a sympathy strike. Kaiser said its medical centers in Northern California, in conjunction with their local emergency medical services agencies, have requested ambulance diversion for stroke and severe heart attack patients through Nov. 19. 

"These mutual agreements were made out of an abundance of caution to ensure that patients in need of specialized emergency department care during this work stoppage all receive the excellent and timely care they deserve," Kaiser's statement read. "This decision is being continually evaluated by Kaiser Permanente and the counties as circumstances change.

"All of our emergency departments are open. Patients may encounter longer wait times this week due to a labor strike. As always, in the event of an emergency Kaiser Permanente members should go to the nearest emergency department, Kaiser Permanente or non-Kaiser Permanente, and will be covered under their Kaiser Permanente health plan."

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