Kaiser Permanente and a union representing 85,000 employees are preparing for a possible strike Oct. 1 as the two sides remain far apart on contract proposals.
An overwhelming majority of the more than 77,000 members of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions who cast ballots authorized a strike if the health system and union don’t reach an agreement during what are being called final bargaining sessions this week.
The coalition’s national four-year contract, which covers more than 85,000 people—frontline employees across seven states--is set to expire Sept. 30.
Striking at facilities nationwide could start Oct. 1, said Renée Saldaña, a spokesperson for SEIU-UHW.
Bargaining for a systemwide contract began in April. The coalition's most recent demands include a universal $25 per hour minimum wage, a 26.5% wage increase over four years and improved healthcare benefit funding for retirees.
Kaiser Permanente said its most recent offer includes a $21 minimum wage for employees, annual wage increases of 10% to 14% over four years and one-time payments that vary based on region. The health system is not proposing changes to its retirement benefit contribution plans, which it said are “lucrative.”
The health system wants to ensure that healthcare workers aren’t paid vastly different amounts than other employers' workers for the same jobs, a Kaiser Permanente spokesperson said.
Should a strike occur, Kaiser Permanente plans to use “every tool” at its disposal to ensure continuation of care, which could include bringing in contract workers, deferring patients to other healthcare facilities and having managers pick up shifts, a system spokesperson said.
Some coalition members say the system's proposed wage increases aren’t enough to attract and retain employees.
The system needs to prioritize hiring more frontline staff, especially in pharmacy-related areas where outpatient clinics are struggling with timely access to medications, said Christie Dubeck, a pharmacy technician at Kaiser Permanente’s medical center in Fremont, California.
Dubeck, a 34-year employee, said she is concerned that low staffing levels could lead to an increase in medication errors.
“It seems like they don't care about their frontline staff anymore, which is not the way this organization has been in the past,” Dubeck said. “Those positions being vacated are not being filled. The expectation from leadership is that the people that are still there just pick up the slack.”
At Kaiser Sunnyside Medical Center in Clackamas, Oregon, understaffing in the hospital’s admitting department has meant longer wait times for patients who are scheduling and checking in for appointments, said Keven Dardon, a patient access representative.
Issues of burnout and decreased patient care quality have driven thousands of Kaiser Permanente employees to agree to strike, a decision not taken lightly, he said.
“Our workers have actually been preparing for about a year now for this strike,” Dardon said. “A lot of people have taken second jobs, picked up extra hours and saved money.”
Out of the 4,000 Kaiser Permanente employees in the SEIU Local 49 union, which covers workers in Oregon and Southwest Washington, 98% voted to authorize a strike.
About 75% of Kaiser Permanente’s 305,000 employees are represented by unions.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said nurses were covered by the contract.