Kaiser Permanente and union representatives have vowed to continue negotiations on a new contract until the last minute as the threat of the nation’s latest major strike looms next month.
Unless an agreement is reached, more than 75,000 health workers will walk out for three days from October 4-7, disrupting the care of KP patients in California, Colorado, Oregon, Virginia, Washington, and Washington, DC Unions represent a wide range. of health workers in KP, including lab technicians, phlebotomists, pharmacists, optometrists, social workers, orderlies, and support staff.
A strike, if it happens, would affect most of Kaiser Permanente’s 39 hospitals and 622 medical offices across the US, and would disrupt care for many of its nearly 13 million patients. When workers leave their jobs, “it immediately starts to affect patient care,” said John August, director of health care and partner programs at Cornell University’s Scheinman Institute on Conflict Resolution. who was the former head of the union coalition that is now negotiating. in KP.
“You’re immediately subject to the problems of not being able to get in and out of hospital patients. You’re at risk of infection control problems. You can’t get meals,” said August.
Arlene Peasnall, Kaiser Permanente’s senior vice president for human resources, said the Oakland, California-based health care giant’s goal is to “reach a mutually beneficial agreement before any termination occurs.” work.” But he also said the nonprofit has plans in place to cushion the impact of a walkout.
“We will be bargaining with Kaiser until the day we strike,” said Caroline Lucas, executive director of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, which represents about 40% of KP workers. “Our front-line health care workers are fed up, and we need Kaiser executives to take the initiative and continue to resolve the contract.”
The current contract expires on September 30 and, after months of talks, the two sides still cannot agree on salary and staffing. The coalition wants a $25-an-hour minimum wage companywide. KP executives agreed that there should be a floor across the organization, but they proposed $21.
KP chooses different wage increases in the regions, because the cost of living can vary. The coalition, which is pushing for equal wage increases in all regions, argued that the management proposal was part of a “divide-and-conquer strategy.” Peasnall said the union’s stance “prevents us from responding to fair wages in the market where we have to pay more to attract and retain the best people.”
Unions say their lowest-paid workers can barely make ends meet despite rising prices for food, fuel, and other essentials. And, they say, KP hospitals and clinics are severely understaffed, forcing workers to put in more hours and fill more roles. They argue that management is not doing enough to fill positions and that the quality of care suffers as patients, some with serious illnesses, often wait months for appointments, face longer emergency room waits, and experience delays in hospital admissions.
An industry-wide labor shortage hangs heavily over contract talks. The pandemic has been especially brutal for health care workers who often work long hours in extreme conditions, as colleagues get sick, die, or quit. Workers say many of the positions left vacant during the pandemic have yet to be filled.
Miriam De La Paz, a secretary in the labor and delivery department at KP’s Downey Medical Center in Southern California and a union steward, said that if she is alone on a shift, she is responsible for both labor and delivery. station as well as triage, where patients are given priority based on the merit of their cases.
“Imagine if I put this child in the system and your wife shows pain, crying, but I’m not there to register him,” said De La Paz. “I can’t break myself in two.”
Unions want KP to invest in education, training, and recruitment to fill current openings and create a pipeline of future workers. KP says that it is doing so.
Peasnall said KP has filled more than 9,700 of the 10,000 new jobs represented by the coalition that the two sides agreed to create this year. And he said KP’s turnover rate is one of the third highest in the industry, in part because of “good pay and benefits.”
Earlier this month, California lawmakers passed legislation to gradually raise the minimum wage for health care workers in the state to $25 an hour. If signed by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom bill becomes law, KP must comply. And nearly 80% of the workers represented by the coalition in current contract talks are in California.
On Sept. 22, as bargaining continues in San Francisco, the unions announced that more than 75,000 of the 85,000 workers they represent will stage a three-day walkout if no deal is reached. Federal law requires 10 days notice of strikes in health care facilities. The coalition said it was “ready to engage in another longer, stronger strike in November,” if no agreement is reached by then.
A spokeswoman for the coalition, Betsy Twitchell, said the workers would welcome the participation of the Biden administration in the talks “because of the importance of these negotiations to the millions of patients and 75,000 workers in health care forward.”
Unions say KP can afford to be more generous, citing strong financial health.
Although KP reported a net loss of around $4.5 billion in 2022, it generated a cumulative net income of around $22 billion over the past three years – both results driven largely by investment performance . In the first half of this year, KP posted a revenue of more than $3 billion. And it is in a strong position to manage its debt, according to a report earlier this year by Fitch Ratings.
The unions noted that Kaiser Permanente’s CEO, Greg Adams, received nearly $16 million in compensation in 2021 and that dozens of other KP executives earned more than $1 million, according to a KP filing. to the IRS.
Peasnall said KP’s senior management pay is less than their peers at other health care companies.
The KP walkout is the latest in a series of labor strikes. Strikes hit Hollywood, hotels, auto manufacturers, and other industries. Public approval of unions is at a nearly 60-year high, according to a Gallup Poll released in August 2022.
Health workers are also increasing in number. Several hospital groups have been hit by the strikes, including Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and several facilities belonging to Sutter Health in Northern California, as well as health care organizations in other states.
“There’s an atmosphere in the country: It’s the summer of work, it’s the summer of the strike, it’s everything,” August said. “It definitely had an influence on the union leadership saying, ‘We have to be a part of that.'”