On Wednesday, more than 75,000 unionized employees of Kaiser Permanente, one of the nation’s largest not-for-profit health care providers. He left the jobMarks the largest health care worker strike in US history.
The striking employees in California, Colorado, Washington, Virginia, Oregon and Washington, DC are represented by a coalition of unions representing 40% of Kaiser Permanente’s total workforce. Most of the striking workers are in the West Coast states. The strike, which began at 6 am local time, will continue until Saturday morning.
Bargaining sessions between the alliance and Kaiser Permanente ended without a settlement on Wednesday, but “several tentative agreements on bargaining” had been reached, Kaiser Permanente said in a statement on Wednesday.
“While we have not reached a contract settlement, we have been able to reach several tentative agreements in the negotiations, and our offers to date address the unions’ priorities,” the statement said.
Kaiser Permanente says it will work with union leaders to “reconvene negotiations as soon as possible.”
The unprecedented strike comes at a time of growing labor activity across the United States, with tens of thousands of workers in many industries striking for better wages and benefits. However, in the wake of the pandemic, healthcare workers in particular are fighting for a safe and secure work environment. They are demanding improved staffing levels, arguing that current staffing shortages are compromising patient care and driving many workers to breaking even.
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Kaiser Permanente health workers and supporters picket outside the Kaiser Permanente medical office in Denver.
Nursing staff, food workers, receptionists, optometrists and pharmacists are on strike. The strike attempt comes after union contracts expire on September 30 at 11:59pm PT. Negotiations between the union and Kaiser Permanente continued into Wednesday, according to James Santos, field coordinator for the Coalition of Kaiser Unions in Virginia, but he said an agreement to stop the strike had not yet been reached.
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Picket lines at the Virginia and Washington DC facilities, most of which are not open 24 hours a day, went up at 7 a.m. ET.
“Our team will be available 24/7 to negotiate with the coalition until we reach a fair and equitable agreement,” Kaiser said in a statement released Tuesday at 9 p.m. We are confident there is still time to reach an agreement before any of the strikes called for by coalition unions begin at 6am on Wednesday.
But by 6 a.m. on the West Coast, there was no deal and the workers went on strike.
The strike is temporary. Kaiser Permanente workers will return to work at 6 a.m. local time on Oct. 7 in each state that joins the strike. However, according to information from SEIU-UHW, the coalition’s largest union, a “longer, stronger” strike could come in November if an agreement is not reached between the coalition and Kaiser Permanente after this strike attempt.
The employees who are on strike say that the lack of staff is causing overwork and heatstroke. In a recent statement, Kaiser Permanente said it had agreed to accelerate hiring, setting a target of hiring 10,000 new people for union-represented jobs by the end of 2023.
The union coalition is demanding higher wages, Kaiser permanent management’s strategy to deal with chronic staff shortages, protections against outsourcing and advance notice when management calls remote workers to work in person.
According to an update from SEIU-UHW, negotiations were making progress before the strike began, although management and unions remain far apart over employee raises.
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According to SEIU-UHW’s Oct. 1 update, Kaiser Permanente has offered location-based wage increases, with a maximum of 4% for each of the four years of the new contract. The federation rejected that offer, saying such a hike proposal failed to contain the cost of living.
The coalition is asking for a 6.5% raise in the first two years of the labor agreement and a 5.75% raise in the next two years.
Renee Saldana, spokeswoman for SEIU-UHW, told CNN: “Workers are really squeezed right now. “They’ve been through the worst global health crisis in a generation, and then they come out, they’re worried about paying rent, they’re worried about losing their homes, they’re worried about their cars. Worried about living.”
In a statement, Kaiser Permanente said it is leading the charge.
“We lead total compensation in every market in which we operate, and our proposals in negotiations will ensure we maintain that position,” a Kaiser Permanente spokeswoman said in a statement.
Kaiser Permanente management and union representatives accepted some of the union’s demands. For example, Kaiser Permanente has agreed to renew outsourcing and subcontracting protections for many workers, according to SEIU-UHW.
Healthcare workers strike in front of Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center as more than 75,000 Kaiser Permanente healthcare workers across the United States go on strike on October 4, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
Kaiser Permanente operates differently from the fee-for-service model of most health care providers in the United States, in which a physician or health care provider is paid per service. Kaiser Permanente “members” pay dues to the organization to access Kaiser Permanente’s wide range of health care services.
Although doctors and most registered nurses are not on strike, the temporary work stoppage may affect some patient care. In a statement, Kaiser Permanente said it had made preparations for the strike, but “out of an abundance of caution” said patients should expect some non-urgent and elective services to be modified during the strike.
“Our hospitals and emergency departments are open. Our facilities will continue to be staffed by our physicians, trained and experienced managers and staff, and in some cases we will be augmented with contingent workers,” said a Kaiser Permanente spokesperson.
The multi-state strike comes at a time of heightened labor activity in the US. Several large-scale strikes have paralyzed companies and entire industries in recent months.
The entertainment industry also faced twin strikes this summer after Hollywood’s writers’ and actors’ unions went on strike simultaneously for the first time since 1960. Writers Guild of America leadership reached a tentative deal with Hollywood studios last month. But the actors union strike is going on.
The health care industry has been particularly affected by increasing strike action. From the beginning of 2022 through August of this year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics tracked 42 walkouts of 1,000 or more strikers. Its figures show that a third of those strikes were in health care. That’s 24% more than major strikes in 2019, the year before the pandemic. Despite health workers making up only 9% of private sector union membership nationwide, there have been an increasing number of health care strikes.
In January, than 7,000 nurses at two major New York City hospitals Organizations went on strike, leading to massive staff shortages. Their complaints echo those of Kaiser Permanente’s employees.
Kaiser acknowledged its staffing challenges in a statement, but argued that the issue has affected health care providers across the country.
“Every health care provider in the country is facing staff shortages and struggling with burnout. During the Great Resignation in 2021-22, more than 5 million people left their health care jobs nationwide. Two-thirds of health care workers say they are burned out, and 1 in 5 – and say more are leaving,” the company said in a statement. “Kaiser Permanente is not immune to these challenges.”
— CNN’s Chris Isidore contributed to this report