In a groundbreaking move, healthcare personnel at hundreds of Kaiser Permanente medical facilities and hospitals scattered across the United States staged a massive walkout on a Wednesday morning. Their objective? To exert intensified pressure on their employer, compelling a resolution to the lingering staffing shortfall that has amplified in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over 75,000 dedicated workers, including nurses, emergency department technicians, pharmacists, and numerous others, embarked on this strike in various states, including California, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Virginia, and the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.
This historic healthcare strike is deemed the largest in U.S. history, as asserted by the unions spearheading the endeavor.
Headquartered in Oakland, California, Kaiser Permanente stands as one of the United States’ foremost nonprofit healthcare providers, extending its services to nearly 13 million patients. The majority of Kaiser’s workforce partaking in this strike will remain away from their duties for a duration spanning three days, culminating on Saturday morning. An exception is made for employees in Virginia and Washington, D.C., who will observe a 24-hour strike.
Impact on Patient Care The healthcare provider has explicitly stated that its hospitals and emergency departments will remain operational during the course of this strike, with a dedicated cadre of physicians and support staff attending to the needs of patients. Furthermore, it has undertaken the recruitment of professionals ready to assume critical care responsibilities in the face of the strike’s duration.
Kaiser has, however, forewarned its patients of potential rescheduling for non-emergency and elective services. To ensure continued access to medications in the event of temporary outpatient pharmacy closures, the organization is expanding its network of community pharmacies. It is noteworthy that inpatient pharmacies within Kaiser hospitals will remain in operation.
Approximately 60% of Kaiser’s workforce, encompassing doctors and other essential personnel, will continue their duties despite the strike, underscoring the organization’s commitment to patient care.
The Crisis of Understaffing These valiant healthcare professionals form the latest group of essential workers to voice their grievances this year, joining the ranks of those such as the Hollywood writers and the enduring United Auto Workers strike, all advocating for improved work conditions and compensation.
Their collective decision to strike arises from a pressing issue of understaffing, which they contend has led to arduous working conditions. Such conditions have made it increasingly challenging to retain employees within Kaiser’s fold, ultimately detrimentally affecting the quality of care provided to the organization’s patients.
Unveiling data obtained by the unions, it is revealed that as of April this year, approximately 11% of union positions remained vacant, shedding light on the magnitude of the staffing crisis.
Caroline Lucas, the executive director of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, remarked, “Healthcare workers are drawn to this profession by passion and a sense of calling. However, they find it challenging to remain in positions where they cannot deliver optimal patient care.”
The unions accuse Kaiser of unfair labor practices, asserting that the organization has been reluctant to engage in genuine negotiations aimed at resolving the staffing crisis—a claim Kaiser vehemently denies.
A Reluctant Stand Kaiser has implored its workers to reconsider their decision to strike, citing concerns about potential harm to patients.
Yet, employees like Brooke El-Amin, a dedicated Kaiser employee for 21 years, argue that patient care is already suffering due to staffing inadequacies. The primary goal of the strike, as El-Amin emphasizes, is to exert pressure on Kaiser to institute long-term improvements in patient care.
El-Amin candidly states, “I do not wish to participate in a strike. However, I firmly believe that Kaiser is already failing our patients—they are failing their own employees.”
The Vanguard of the Strike Pharmacists and optometrists in Washington, D.C., and Virginia initiated the strike at 6 a.m. local time on that Wednesday morning. They were soon joined by workers in Colorado and along the West Coast.
Bolstered by the momentum of their respective unions, dozens of Kaiser employees eagerly rallied on the picket lines, particularly at Kaiser’s Springfield Medical Center in Virginia, shortly after the strike’s commencement.
Keyani Adigun, a clinical pharmacist in Washington, D.C., revealed the hardships faced during the pandemic as patient demands surged amid the exodus of her colleagues from Kaiser.
Even after more than three years since the onset of COVID-19, Adigun contends that her employer still falls short in providing adequate resources.
“I hope that the leadership at Kaiser takes heed of our voices,” Adigun asserts passionately before joining the picket line. “As we toil harder, the resources available to us seem to diminish.”
An Unresolved Contract The collective bargaining agreement for employees represented by a coalition of unions expired on September 30 without a new agreement in place. Despite making headway in certain areas like outsourcing and subcontracting protections during recent negotiations, the unions and Kaiser executives remain significantly apart on pivotal matters, including wage adjustments.
On Monday, a tentative agreement was reached to allocate a 40% increase to an educational fund, earmarked for additional employee training, as reported by the SEIU-UHW union in California.
Nonetheless, the coalition is steadfast in its demand for a nearly 25% pay raise for all members, coupled with enhanced benefits such as comprehensive medical coverage for retirees. They assert that these improvements would not only encourage existing staff to remain with Kaiser but also attract fresh talent, ultimately alleviating the staffing crisis.
In response, Kaiser has proposed raises spanning a four-year period, ranging from 12.5% to 16%. Kaiser also underscores its commitment to hire an additional 10,000 unionized employees by the close of 2023 to address staffing gaps.
The organization highlights that staffing shortages and burnout are challenges afflicting the entire healthcare industry, not just Kaiser. It asserts that its compensation and benefits packages remain superior to most counterparts.
Lucas acknowledges Kaiser’s strides in bolstering hiring efforts but emphasizes the importance of retaining existing workers. She argues that significant wage increases are vital to incentivizing staff to stay with Kaiser, a necessary step to ensure the organization’s success.
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