Roughly 88,000 workers at Kaiser Permanente, 40% of the Oakland-based company’s national workforce, will begin voting on Saturday on whether to strike starting Oct. 1, leaders of the Kaiser Permanente Coalition of Unions announced Thursday.
At a news conference, several Kaiser employees sought to remind the public that they were the people caring for and supporting patients in hospitals amid the COVID-19 pandemic and that they, as both employees and members, are dismayed by how staffing shortages are eroding the quality of care at Kaiser.
Liz Grigsby, a respiratory therapist at Kaiser’s Roseville Medical Center, described how she is still haunted because she was unable to fulfill a promise she made to a new mom who lost her life to COVID-19.
“Just after giving birth, she had a desperate plea: ‘Please, please, Liz, don’t let me die,’ recalled Grigsby, as she fought back tears. “I worked with her for several days. She sought comfort and connection to a familiar face to anchor her during her fight, and that face was mine. I made a promise to her to stay by her side to come back and to provide the support she desperately needed.”
Because there was a shortage of staff, Grigsby said, she was unable to make it back to her patient before she died. Years later, Grigsby said, her facility still does not have enough respiratory therapists. Researchers have said that an untold number of health care workers likely suffered psychological setbacks known as moral injuries during the pandemic because they violated their own moral compass or witnessed someone doing so.
“Do I check on that (emergency department) patient that is suffering from an asthma attack?” Grigsby asked rhetorically, “Or do I go to the person that is in (the intensive care unit) who is so short of breath or do I go to (the neonative intensive care unit) with that micro-preemie baby that a mother just delivered? It’s a crisis a situation that leaves our hands tied and our hearts heavy.”
Kaiser Permanente, in a statement issued after the coalition’s news conference, said that, like all health care organizations, the company has been experiencing staffing challenges driven by the pandemic and its lasting effects.
For health care systems, this has been made worse by the backlog in care and the increase in needs and acuity across the country, Kaiser officials said, but the company is working to hire 10,000 new people for coalition-represented jobs in 2023. To date, they said, more than 6,500 positions have been filled.
“While Kaiser Permanente has experienced the same pressures, through diligent work and an unwavering commitment to our people, we have weathered these staffing challenges better than most health care organizations,” company leaders said. “Kaiser Permanente’s average employee turnover rate of 8.5 percent, as of June 2023, is significantly lower than the rate of 21.4 percent across health care. Talented people who recognize the value of our current wage and benefit offerings want to work at Kaiser Permanente, which is why about 96 percent of candidates for coalition-represented positions accept our employment offers—significantly above the industry average.”
What do Kaiser employees want?
Dave Regan, president of the largest union in the coalition, and other speakers at the news conference said the company had long ago ceded its place as a health care industry leader. After the unprecedented trauma of the pandemic, Regan said, the SEIU-UHW membership expected Kaiser to do right by them. After all, he said, the company is expected to rake in more than $100 billion in revenue this year.
The coalition submitted an economic proposal to the company that called for a $25 minimum wage for its members and annual pay increases that would equal 7% in the first year of a four-year contract, 7% In the second year and 6.25% in each of the last two years.
The company has yet to counter with a comprehensive proposal on wages, Regan said, but offered a $21 minimum wage starting in 2026. That offer, Regan said, shows a lack of respect for not only the 58,000 members of his union, the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, but for all coalition members.
Thousands of Kaiser employees live in Honolulu, Los Angeles, Seattle and other areas of the nation with a high cost of living, Regan said, and they cannot cover all the expenses of caring for their families on wages of $17, $19 or $21 an hour.
Kaiser also has not been bargaining in good faith, Regan said, leading the union to file a dozen charges of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Kaiser has not provided regional operating margins and other information that would assist the union in evaluating mandatory bargaining issues, he said, and company negotiators tried to force the coalition to limit the size of its bargaining team.
Why do unfair labor claims matter to potential strikers?
Labor expert Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University said the NLRB will evaluate whether the company’s actions meet the level of an unfair labor practices. Typically, the agency said on its website, it takes 7 to 14 weeks to investigate charges and deliver a decision, though some cases may take longer.
“The company cannot decide size of the bargaining team, and there’s some great precedents on this (issue),” said Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research in Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “In the 80s, the hotel and restaurant employees, Local 26 in Boston, had 100 members on the bargaining team and the company didn’t want to bargain with them, but they had to because the union gets to choose who is on their bargaining team.”
The allegations of unfair labor practices matter. Under federal regulations, strikers cannot be terminated or permanently replaced if the NLRB determines that their employer committed unfair labor practices, and when the strike ends, the striking employees are entitled to have their jobs back even if the company hired other individuals to do their work.
Kaiser leaders said the coalition’s claims about bad-faith bargaining are unfounded and counterproductive. In addition to the minimum wage proposal, they said, the company’s negotiators also sent the union a proposal on improvements to the performance sharing bonus plan.
Because union officials must conduct the strike vote to employees in seven states and the District of Columbia, it will take at a few weeks to get final results. An authorization vote does not necessarily mean the coalition unions will strike, and they must give the company a 10-day notice of their intent to strike to allow time to get contingency workers in place.
Since UPS settled its labor negotiations with the Teamsters, the Kaiser contract negotiations have now become the largest single-employer labor negotiations occurring in the United States. Kaiser established a labor partnership with about 75% of its employees 26 years ago, and the company has long said the agreement has helped management and labor work together to ensure quality care.