More than 75,000 Kaiser Permanente health care workers began a three-day strike Wednesday morning after they failed to reach a new contract agreement.
The strike began with employees in Virginia and the District of Columbia, where they picketed outside Kaiser facilities. Most of Kaiser’s workers are in California, where many of its unionized employees and those in Colorado, Oregon and Washington are about to strike at 6 a.m. local time.
Union members include support staff and other workers, including lab and x-ray technicians, healthcare workers who disinfect rooms between patients, and pharmacy workers who help dispense medications. These workers perform surgeries, operate imaging equipment, and assist in outpatient clinics. Doctors and many nurses were not part of the labor dispute.
The previous contract expired on Saturday. Kaiser, a large nonprofit health system, provides care to 13 million people in eight states. Union leaders say this could be the largest health care worker strike in recent U.S. history.
“Tens of thousands of frontline Kaiser health care workers across the country are ready to strike over unfair labor practices at 6 a.m. today,” the Coalition of Kaiser Permanent Unions, the advocacy group, said in an earlier statement. a dozen unions representing workers. “Patients and workers need drastic measures now to resolve Kaiser’s staffing shortage crisis and ensure the safety of our patients.”
Kaiser said it had “robust contingency plans to ensure members continue to receive safe, high-quality care in the event of a strike,” and emphasized that all hospitals and emergency departments would remain open.
But patients could experience delays in getting appointments or procedures that are not considered urgent could be postponed.
The conversations seem to continue. Earlier Wednesday, Kaiser issued a statement saying the two sides “are still at the negotiating table, having worked all night in an effort to reach an agreement.”
“There has been a lot of progress,” he continued, “with agreements reached on several specific proposals Tuesday night.”
Severe staffing shortages caused tensions between unions and Kaiser executives in the period before the contract expired. Workers said a lack of adequate staffing at Kaiser facilities created unsafe conditions for patients. Unions argued that Kaiser needed to offer better wages to attract workers and hire enough people to offset a staff exodus during the pandemic.
In proposals considered for a new four-year contract, the union had sought a minimum wage of $25 an hour and raises of 7 percent in the first two years and 6.25 percent in the following two years, according to a recent proposal.
Kaiser had responded with minimum hourly wages of between $21 and $23 next year, rising by a dollar a year. Increases would vary by location.
“It’s very disappointing to see them fall here,” said Caroline Lucas, executive director of the Kaiser Permanent Union Coalition, which represents about half of Kaiser’s unionized workforce.
While the pandemic caused an immediate crisis with workers stretched thin, Lucas said employees were worried about staff shortages even before Covid hit. “For years, there has been a crisis on the horizon,” he said.
Michelle Gaskill-Hames, regional president of Kaiser Permanente in Southern California and Hawaii, had previously said that Kaiser was facing the same staffing issues as other health systems across the country. The group has done better than many of its competitors, she said, by limiting turnover and hiring replacement staff. “We’ve really stepped up aggressive retention and recruiting strategies,” she said.
The frustrations of health care workers, who feel they are forced to care for too many patients for too little pay, have spread across the country. Many of the workers who remain are feeling exhausted and struggling to care for a higher volume of patients. Concern over staffing shortages resulted in a nurses’ strike in New York City in January, and there have been more than a dozen similar strikes this year in California, Illinois, Michigan and elsewhere.
The tight labor market has emboldened many unionized workers, leading to the recently averted strike at United Parcel Service and current picketing among auto workers. “Unions are flexing their muscles in a lot of industries,” said Ruth Milkman, a professor of sociology and labor studies at the City University of New York.
Widespread staffing shortages in the health sector give workers significant leverage to demand better working conditions and higher wages, he said.
Many nurses are represented by other unions, including the California Nurses Association, which agreed to a new contract in Northern California last December.
High levels of burnout have exacerbated staffing shortages, said Ethan Ruskin, a health educator at Kaiser Permanente in San Jose, California. Patients are having to wait longer than usual for appointments, he said, only to face more delays in waiting rooms.
“If they see something on your mammogram and send you for an ultrasound, you’ll have to wait weeks to get a scan,” Ruskin said. “Meanwhile, our sonographers have huge rates of injuries, such as stress fractures, because they are expected to see twice as many patients as they should.”