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Thousands of Kaiser Permanente employees in Southern California voted to authorize a strike against the healthcare giant, as the workers continue to protest what they describe as severe staffing shortages that put both medical staff and patients at risk.
The strike authorization comes amid strained contract negotiations. Union representatives said nearly 21,000 nurses, pharmacists, midwives, physical therapists and others represented by United Nurses Assns. of California/Union of Health Care Professionals, or UNAC/UHCP, voted overwhelmingly — 96% — to approve a strike.
The union contract expired Sept. 30, and the two sides have yet to agree on a new one. A strike would affect Kaiser hospitals and facilities in more than a dozen Southern California cities.
Concerns about safety at work have led nurses to strike across the country over the last year.
In July, about 1,400 registered nurses at USC Norris Cancer Hospital in Los Angeles and Keck Hospital of USC staged a two-day strike, citing concerns such as long shifts, not enough staff and an overreliance on contract nurses. Nurses at San Francisco’s Chinese Hospital and Riverside Community Hospital also went on strike this year.
The regional strike vote comes as negotiations are underway for a national contract between Kaiser and the Alliance of Health Care Unions, which represents UNAC/UHCP as well as 20 other unions covering a total of more than 50,000 workers across the country.
In California, UNAC/UHCP President Denise Duncan, a registered nurse, said talks with Kaiser have brought little progress toward the union’s goals, including more robust staffing and retention. That prompted the strike vote, which Duncan said brought out voters in record numbers for the union. A union representative said the turnout rate in a vote tallied early Monday was 86%.
“It shows they don’t take this lightly,” Duncan said. “They want to see a change.”
Arlene Peasnall, senior vice president of human resources at Kaiser Permanente, said in a statement that it is “not uncommon” to continue negotiating without a contract in place, and that the company is committed to working quickly to reach an agreement. “We ask that our employees reject a call to walk away from the patients who need them,” Peasnall said in the statement.
The vote does not automatically trigger a strike, the statement said. Unions are required to give the company a 10-day notice before any work stoppage.
Bargaining with Kaiser continues this week and Duncan said she is hopeful union leaders and Kaiser Permanente will reach an agreement by the end of the month, avoiding a strike.
Top of mind for healthcare workers is a new stratified pay system the healthcare giant proposed that the union says would depress wages for new nurses and other recruits. Workers say the system could fuel more shortages at Kaiser’s Southern California hospitals and clinics.
Kaiser’s proposal would lower the wage scale for almost every job classification represented by the alliance of unions by 26% to 39% for new hires beginning in January 2023, said Jane Carter, a labor economist and UNAC/UHCP’s director of research, regulatory affairs and public policy. If implemented, this “two-tiered” system could breed resentment among workers paid at different rates for the same work, cause higher turnover and impair efforts to attract and retain skilled workers, Carter said.
Carter, who has participated in bargaining sessions, said the company has not explained the shift to the new system. “They have not explained their reasoning for these draconian cuts they’re proposing while they’re so profitable,” she said.
Kaiser based its proposal on a survey by a third-party vendor it commissioned early this year to analyze market-rate wages. Carter said that analysis is severely deflated compared with actual market rates and that the survey relied too much on community medical centers as data points, failing to include rates from competitors that pay more, such as Sharp HealthCare in San Diego. The survey also did not assess a large chunk of the job classifications Kaiser Permanente is proposing a pay change for, she said.
Kaiser Permanente spokesperson Terry Kanakri said in an email that the independent analysis included major healthcare providers with competitive rates such as Cedars-Sinai and found union-represented employee wages to be 26% over market in nearly all the markets where the company operates, and in some cases much higher.
“Millions of Americans struggle with healthcare expenses. Looking ahead, we must reduce expenses to remain competitive long term, and our wages and benefits represent more than 50% of our overall cost structure,” Kanakri said. “We are not proposing any kind of wage or benefit reduction for our 48,000 current Alliance employees.”
Jenny Wong-Swanson who worked as a nurse for six years on the night shift at Kaiser’s facility in Woodland Hills, said it feels unfair to slash wages for future co-workers. “We’ve proved our value over the last year and a half. We worked extra shifts, without breaks, short staffed, and we did whatever it took to make sure patients were taken care of during an unprecedented pandemic.”
Wong-Swanson worked in one of Kaiser’s COVID-19 units during California’s multiple deadly virus surges. She said the mental and physical exhaustion she felt then was more severe than any other circumstance — 13- to 16-hour days, often without a break and with near-constant exposure to death — including her work with elderly patients in hospice and terminally ill cancer patients.
“I would come home exhausted. It was impossible for us to unwind on days off,” said Wong-Swanson, who changed jobs to work in family medicine at another Kaiser facility six weeks ago for a change of pace.
A strike could affect operations at Kaiser hospitals and medical centers in Anaheim, Bakersfield, Baldwin Park, Downey, Fontana, Irvine, Los Angeles, Ontario, Panorama City, Riverside, San Diego, West Los Angeles and Woodland Hills, among other medical facilities in Southern California.
Parallel to the UNAC/UHCP vote, United Steelworkers Local 7600 also authorized a strike Monday. The union represents about 7,000 healthcare workers, including housekeeping attendants, customer service representatives and pharmacy technicians at Kaiser Permanente locations across Southern California.
In a vote tallied Sunday night, 3,400 Kaiser Permanente nurses and other healthcare workers represented by the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals also authorized a strike.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.