'Striketober': Why healthcare workers nationwide are walking off the job

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In a movement that has been deemed "striketober" online and on social media, workers in healthcare and other industries, who have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic for nearly two years, are walking off the job or preparing to walk off over working conditions, according to NBC News.

Pay, benefits and staffing are among the key sticking points in negotiations.

"We've definitely seen an uptick in late September and October," Johnnie Kallas, a PhD student at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations who tracks labor actions across the U.S., told NBC News. "It's a combination of two factors: Workers have more labor-market leverage with employers needing and struggling to hire, and then a lot of these workers have been on the front line of a global pandemic for the past 19 months and were touted as heroes, which has given them lots of leverage."

One example cited by NBC News and NPR is John Deere, where more than 10,000 workers went on strike Oct. 14 in the Midwest amid contract negotiations.

In healthcare, nurses and other workers at Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente have voted to authorize a strike as Kaiser is negotiating for a national contract with the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals, along with about 20 other unions in the Alliance of Health Care Unions. The alliance, which has been in negotiations with Kaiser since April, covers more than 50,000 Kaiser workers nationwide. Kaiser workers have authorized a strike at Southern California facilities, and strike authorization votes affecting pharmacists, physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists in Northern California and Hawaii are scheduled later in October.

In Kaiser negotiations, a proposed two-tier wage system is being rejected by workers, according to union representatives.

Arlene Peasnall, senior vice president of human resources at Kaiser, said in a statement that the health system's economic proposal includes pay bumps for current employees and no changes to the current retirement plan. She said it also guarantees no wage cuts for existing 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, Ms. Peasnall said. 

She added, "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 employees hired in 2023 and beyond that will allow our new employees to be paid above market wages on average, enabling us to continue attracting and retaining top talent."

But the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals points to Kaiser's profits and says the healthcare giant is trying to "depress wages for current workers" and seeks "to slash the wages of new workers — who are desperately needed as staffing shortages threaten patient care for the long term."

Wages are an issue in other labor disputes, too.

Minneapolis-based Allina Health is temporarily suspending emergency and urgent care services at its Abbott Northwestern WestHealth location in Plymouth, Minn., as nurses go on strike until 7 a.m. Oct. 20.

The Minnesota Nurses Association, which represents about 50 nurses at Abbott Northwestern WestHealth's emergency department and urgent care facilities, said its members have been in negotiations since May and seek a contract that provides fair pay for holiday work and adequate benefits.

Allina Health said it has negotiated seven times with the union and has "consistently offered proposals that demonstrate our commitment to our employees, including an immediate wage increase to align wages with other metro hospitals and agreeing to some of the union's other priority issues."

While wages are often part of contract negotiations, staffing is also a key issue in labor disputes.

In New York, workers continue to strike at Catholic Health's Mercy Hospital of Buffalo. Members of Communications Workers of America, which represents about 2,000 front-line workers at Mercy Hospital, began the strike Oct. 1, citing concerns about staffing and patient care.

Throughout negotiations, Communications Workers of America has sought an agreement with adequate wages to attract and retain staff, and a contract that guarantees adequate staffing and care levels.

Catholic Health said it has made a proposal that "provides market-competitive wages, maintains existing benefits, and presents a strong, long-term solution to address staffing."

More than 350 healthcare workers at Sutter Delta Medical Center in Antioch, Calif., began a five-day strike Oct. 4, also citing what they say is massive understaffing and difficult working conditions.

Sutter Delta, part of Sacramento, Calif.-based Sutter Health, expressed disappointment about the union's choice to strike, especially during the pandemic, and said it stood by its latest contract offer.

Sutter Delta is proposing a 13 percent salary increase over four years: 3 percent annual salary increases each year for three years and a 4 percent increase in the fourth year of the contract. Sutter Delta said it is also proposing 100 percent employer paid health coverage for employees and their families, as well as money "to support access for our employees to education, credentialing and growth opportunities and [to create] a pipeline for new hires." 

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