The labor union representing 24,000 Kaiser Permanente employees is pausing participation in its labor-management partnership with the integrated health system and is prepared to ask its members to vote on a strike, union leaders said Friday.
The United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals, which includes registered nurses, pharmacists, rehab therapists, midwives and optometrists, also said the landmark labor-management partnership created in 1997 is "on life support."
The union's collective bargaining agreements with the Oakland-based not-for-profit system expire within weeks. The employer has offered a 1% across-the-board raise for union workers and a two-tiered pay scale that would reduce compensation for new hires compared to current employees starting in 2023, which the union does not support.
Arlene Peasnall, senior vice president of human resources at Kaiser Permanente, said its proposal includes wage increases for all current employees, no changes to the retirement plan and guarantees no wage cuts for existing workers.
"At the heart of our dispute is the fact that healthcare is increasingly unaffordable and escalating wages are half of the cost of healthcare. Our employees represented by the[Alliance of Health Care Unions] earn around 26% above the average market wage, and in some places it's 38% above market levels.," Peasnall said. "To help address future costs and ensure we continue to be affordable for our members, we are proposing a market-based compensation structure for those hired in 2023 and beyond that will allow our new employees to be paid above market wages on average, enabling us to continue attracting and retaining top talent."
Union workers say proposals like these, which reduce wages long term even though the company reported $2.2 billion in operating income in 2020, give them no choice but to pause the partnership and potentially call for a strike, the union said in a news release. Labor leaders worry Kaiser Permanente's proposals will worsen staff shortages as other healthcare providers offer raises, signing bonuses and other incentives to attract workers, especially nurses.
"We risked our lives and our own families' health to save people," Peter Sidhu, a registered nurse who has cared for COVID-19 patients. Sidhu is the union's treasurer and a member of the bargaining committee negotiating with Kaiser Permanente.
"Some of us died from it. Others still suffer long haul symptoms. We were without beds. We had patients in tents. Not enough nurses. The employer should be thanking us. Instead, Kaiser Permanente has chosen to drive down wages and benefits," Sidhu said.
Peasnall said Kaiser has provided nearly $600 million in employee assistance to frontline workers during the pandemic for alternate housing, childcare grants and paid leave for COVID-19 illness and exposure and last year guaranteed that all union-represented workers' performance bonuses would have a payout of at least 100%.
The most recent bargaining session was Sept. 10 and no future meetings are currently scheduled, said Joe Guzynski, the union's executive director and chief negotiator.
"We're focusing on in-depth conversations with our members about these issues and what to do next. With most of our contracts set to expire on Sept. 30, if Kaiser Permanente intends to force these wage cuts, it could lead to nationwide actions, including a strike," Guzynski said.
The Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, which also belongs to the Alliance of Health Care Unions, is planning a rally in Portland Sept. 28 to protest staffing levels and proposed contract changes at Kaiser Permanente facilities.
The labor management partnership is a 24-year-old agreement between the health system and its unions—now called the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions and the Alliance of Health Care Unions—to jointly make decisions about patient care, access and quality.
Workers don't want to strike and fear walking out would be unfair to the travel nurses across the country, who would be brought in to cover a strike, said, Elizabeth Hawkins, a registered nurse and the union's secretary.
"This employer has an agenda that's being orchestrated from the top down, from Kaiser leadership and the board of directors, who I believe no longer believe in the partnership and working with the union," said Hawkins, who retired from Kaiser Permanente last March after 31 years. "We should be able to sit down and put the partnership principles to work and get to where we need to be."
The health system likely narrowly avoided a strike by the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions in September 2019 over contract negotiations, after agreeing to higher wages and a workforce development program.
Peasnall said the labor management partnership has a great track record for solving difficult problems and should not be abandoned.
"In the spirit of the partnership, we ask union leaders to continue to work constructively toward an agreement, rather than call on nurses to walk away from patients who need them during this pandemic," Peasnall said. "We believe continued discussion at the bargaining table is the best way to resolve issues and differences and reach an agreement."