More than 30,000 Kaiser workers plan Nov. 15 strike

More than 30,000 Kaiser Permanente workers in multiple states plan to strike beginning Nov. 15, according to union news releases.

United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals said members delivered a strike notice against Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente on Nov. 4, covering 21,000 registered nurses, pharmacists, midwives, physical and occupational therapists, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and others throughout Southern California. 

Nearly 3,400 workers from Kaiser Permanente in Oregon and Southwest Washington, who are represented by the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, also announced that they will strike beginning Nov. 15 unless contract negotiations improve.

Members of OFNHP and UNAC/UHCP will be joined by 7,400 members of United Steelworkers Local 7600 in Southern California, who plan to strike against Kaiser Permanente, according to union news releases. OFNHP, which represents registered nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, lab professionals and other workers, said an additional 8,000 Kaiser Permanente workers might follow shortly after across a total of five states.

"We hoped that simply authorizing the strike, holding rallies and other forms of collective worker and community action would push Kaiser to do the right thing, but they have continued to push proposals that would create dangerous conditions for patients and staff," Jodi Barschow, a Kaiser Sunnyside registered nurse and president of the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, AFT, AFL-CIO (OFNHP), said in a news release. "Striking is our last resort, but it is what we must do so that we can protect our patients, our workers and our entire public healthcare system from the disastrous attack Kaiser leadership is staging."

The strike plans come as other Kaiser Permanente workers who are part of the 21-union Alliance of Health Care Unions have authorized strikes as well, including in Georgia and Northern California. The alliance represents more than 50,000 Kaiser Permanente workers nationwide. Kaiser Permanente has been engaged in national bargaining with the Alliance of Health Care Unions since April.

During negotiations, key issues of contention have been staffing as well as a proposed two-tiered wage system that would pay starting employees less than their more experienced colleagues. Union representatives contend that staffing has reached crisis levels at Kaiser Permanente and in other healthcare settings.

"Registered nurses and healthcare professionals are striking over Kaiser Permanente's proposals to depress wages for current employees and slash wages for incoming workers during a national healthcare staffing crisis. Other healthcare systems across the nation — some not as fiscally strong as Kaiser Permanente — are making the right choices for patients by attracting the best caregivers with large wage increases and special incentives, from signing bonuses to onsite childcare," a news release from UNAC/UHCP reads. "Meanwhile, [Kaiser Permanente] — sitting on billions of cash — has failed to address union proposals that would tackle pressing problems such as staffing shortages, racial justice and equal health access."

In a statement shared with Becker's, Arlene Peasnall, senior vice president of human resources at Kaiser Permanente, said there has been progress in negotiations with the alliance in many important areas, reaching tentative deals on the funding of a workforce development trust and several subcommittee recommendations.

"We have been meeting regularly since late September and believe an agreement that meets the interests of all is very possible," she said.

Ms. Peasnall said the challenge Kaiser Permanente is trying to address with unions is the increasingly unaffordable cost of healthcare. She noted that wages and benefits account for half of Kaiser Permanente's operational costs.

"Over the course of our 24 years of labor partnership, we — labor and management — have negotiated wages and benefits primarily at a national level, so pay has not always been matched to the markets where we operate," she said. "As a result, over time in many areas our wage rates have grown to the point where our union represented employees earn about 26 percent above the average market wage, and in some places it's 38 percent above market. These numbers don't include the value of our industry-leading benefits and retirement and pension plans along with the opportunity to earn an additional 3 percent bonus every year, based on our performance."

­Ms. Peasnall added that Kaiser Permanente has proposed wage increases "on top of the already market-leading pay and benefits," and the proposal "simply aims to slow the significant over-market growth in compensation while continuing to reward our employees and fulfill our commitment to our members and patients to provide high-quality, affordable healthcare."

In the event of a strike, Kaiser Permanente said its facilities will be staffed by its trained and experienced managers as well as contingency staff Kaiser Permanente is bringing in as needed. Physicians will continue to provide patient care.

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