More than 75,000 Kaiser Permanente health care workers began a three-day strike Wednesday, a job action that could cause delays for patients — particularly in California — in getting medical appointments, lab results and prescriptions.
After contract talks failed overnight, walkouts began with a small number of employees in Virginia and the District of Columbia, where they staged pickets outside Kaiser’s facilities. Most of the striking Kaiser employees are in California, where the company is based, and workers were stationed outside hospitals and clinics on Wednesday. Other walkouts also began at Kaiser locations in Colorado, Oregon and Washington.
Doctors and many nurses are not on strike, but Kaiser officials warned that some non-urgent procedures may be postponed, some clinic hours may be reduced and waits on phone calls for help may be longer. Some locations are temporarily closed or operating with limited hours.
Negotiations continued on Wednesday after the previous agreement expired over the weekend. But there were few reports of any progress during the day.
At Kaiser Permanente’s West Los Angeles Medical Center, Maria Fixico, a lab assistant at Kaiser for 12 years, arrived at 3 a.m. Wednesday so she could complete patient tests before walking out with colleagues.
“We know these patients. They’re worried. They’re asking us, ‘Who’s going to take care of us?’ They asked. said Ms. Fixico, who waved picket signs in the air and danced to DJ beats among the 750 workers.
Working through the “really, really tough” months of the pandemic, Ms. Fixico said it is now part of a three-member board, down from five. “We’re here because we want to be here and we love our community,” he said. “But we’re very short-staffed.”
In addition to laboratory workers, other participating union members include other employees such as assistants and X-ray technicians, cleaners who disinfect rooms between patients, and pharmacy workers who help dispense medications. These workers attend surgeries, operate imaging equipment and assist in Kaiser’s hundreds of outpatient clinics and hospitals.
Kaiser, one of the nation’s largest not-for-profit health systems, covers 13 million people in eight states under its health plans. Union leaders say it could be the largest strike by healthcare workers in recent US history.
According to a Kaiser official, workers will remain on the job in Georgia and Hawaii, and walkouts are expected to be limited in Washington state. In Virginia and the District of Columbia, only pharmacists and optometrists went on strike for one day. Maryland workers did not participate.
Kaiser stressed that it is implementing contingency plans and keeping all hospitals and emergency departments open.
Mattie Ruffin, 69, has been a nursing assistant at Kaiser for 17 years, bathing patients, feeding them and making sure they take care of themselves when they’re discharged from the hospital.
But he said that due to lack of sufficient staff, there has been a serious impact. “When we’re running from room to room, patients aren’t getting what they need,” Ms. Ruffin said. With more burnout among workers, “you’re going to see higher hospitalization rates, more infections, more falls,” he said.
The strains of severe labor shortages contributed to tensions between unions and Kaiser executives around the time the contract expired. The unions said Kaiser must offer better wages to attract more workers and to hire enough people to cover employee layoffs during the pandemic.
Among plans being considered for a new four-year contract, the union has called for a $25 hourly minimum wage increase of 7 percent in the first two years and 6.25 percent in the following two years. proposal.
Kaiser had opposed Next year, the minimum hourly wage will increase by a dollar between $21 and $23 per year. The hikes vary by location.
“It’s very disappointing to see them come down here,” said Carolyn Lucas, executive director of the Kaiser Permanente Coalition of Unions, which represents about half of Kaiser’s unionized workforce.
The pandemic has caused an immediate crisis in which workers are stretched so thin that Ms Lucas said employees were worried about short staffing even before Covid hit. “For years, there’s been a crisis on the horizon,” he said.
Michelle Gaskill-Hames, Kaiser Permanente’s regional president for Southern California and Hawaii, previously said Kaiser is dealing with the same staffing issues as other health systems across the country.
Although the strike is not expected to last more than three days, it could cost Kaiser a loss of revenue, according to Kevin Holloran, a senior director at Fitch Ratings. “Kaiser will respond by keeping critical infrastructure open, but with no plans to fill in for striking team members with temporary help. The strike will result in canceled procedures, reduced volumes and a brief but sharp drop in provider revenue this week,” he said. In an email.
The frustration of health workers across the country is boiling over. Concerns about patient burden resulted in a nurses’ strike in New York City in January, and 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 the current picketing among auto workers. “Unions are flexing their muscles,” said Ruth Milkman, a professor of sociology and labor studies at the City University of New York.
Many nurses are represented by other unions, including the California Nurses Association, which agreed. New deal Last December in Northern California.
The strike also represents a significant shift in Kaiser’s historic relationship with workers. “I’ve been here 33 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Lisa Floyd, a lab assistant who is part of the negotiating team. “Kaiser prided itself on being a great place to work and a great place to care. It no longer seems that way. They feel they’ve lost their way.