Kaiser Permanente Faces Strike Threat From 85,000 Service Workers

Ken Terry

July 16, 2019

Kaiser Permanente, one of the largest not-for-profit health systems in the United States, is facing the serious threat of a national strike by unions that represent 85,000 Kaiser employees across the country.

If Kaiser fails to reach an agreement with labor in the next 2 weeks, its unionized workers in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, Oregon, Virginia, Washington, and the District of Columbia will vote on whether to authorize a strike, which would begin October 1.

In a news release, the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions (CKPU), the umbrella group that represents all of these workers in negotiations, said that this strike, if it occurs, would be the largest in the United States in more than 20 years.

Contract negotiations between labor and management began in April, more than 6 months after the unions' last contract expired in September. The talks broke off on July 11, and no new talks have been scheduled, Sean Wherley, media relations specialist for Service Employees International Union (SEIU)-United Healthcare Workers West, told Medscape Medical News.

Kaiser denied that negotiations had broken down. "No strike has been called, and at the end of [last] week's bargaining session, the parties agreed that management and union leaders will continue talking and working toward a mutually beneficial agreement," Dennis Dabney, senior vice president, national labor relations and the office of labor management partnership, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan & Hospitals, said in a statement.

The workers represented by the 11 unions in the CKPU include a broad range of healthcare professionals and others who provide the support services for Kaiser Permanente's 39 hospitals and other facilities. Besides clinicians such as RNs, LPNs, and medical assistants, union members include lab scientists and technicians; optometrists; social workers; occupational therapists; IT workers; laundry service and room cleaning staff; surgical technicians; food professionals; physical therapy assistants; medical transcriptionists; orthopedic, cardiology, and ophthalmic technicians; receptionists; pharmacy clerks; MRI and bone density technologists; administrative and billing staffers; and property and janitorial workers.

Kaiser's mental health workers are involved in a separate contract dispute with the company, according to the Los Angeles Times. Their union has rejected Kaiser's latest offers but is continuing talks with the organization.

Of the Kaiser employees represented by CKPU, about 55,000 are in California. SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West also includes about 40,000 non-Kaiser hospital employees in California, Wherley said, and other SEIU locals represent unionized hospital workers in other states.

The Robots Are Coming

Among the major sticking points in CKPU's negotiations with Kaiser are the outsourcing of some jobs, the use of robots in some hospitals, and Kaiser's stated intention to reduce wages for new hires and reduce raises for established workers in some states, Wherley said.

In the past year, he noted, Kaiser has threatened to outsource hundreds of jobs in California alone. Those who might be affected include warehouse staff, parking lot attendants, and shuttle drivers. When such jobs are outsourced, these people may earn only $15 an hour, making it difficult or impossible for them to live in San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Sacramento, he said.

Robot attendants in Kaiser hospitals are also a serious concern, he said, and not only for the workers. "There are attempts to look to robots to handle jobs that are better done by humans because of the care and touch and power that comes from empathy that no machine can deliver."

In a statement to Medscape Medical News, Kaiser denied that robots have replaced any of its employees. While the organization didn’t deny that it planned to outsource some jobs, it said that it was adding jobs overall. Since 2015, Kaiser noted, "The number of our employees represented by SEIU-UH has grown by more than 8,000."

Kaiser also wants to give new employees a lower starting wage than they're currently being offered, Wherley noted.

However, the company argues that in some areas of the country, its workers are overpaid because the prevailing wage structure is lower in those regions. Kaiser makes the same argument to restrain wage increases for current employees.

The unions argue that Kaiser can well afford to continue paying wages in line with what their members are currently receiving. Since January 2017, the CKPU press release noted, Kaiser has earned more than $9 billion in profits, including $3.2 billion in the first quarter of 2019. The coalition also observed that 36 Kaiser executives earn more than $1 million a year.

"While we have been providing care 24/7, holding the hands of sick and frightened patients and making sure they are safe and get the treatment they need, Kaiser has been focused on racking up multi-billion-dollar profits and paying executives exorbitant, million-dollar salaries," Ida Prophet, a licensed vocational nurse at Kaiser South Sacramento in California, said in the news release. "This is a non-profit company that has lost its way and is acting more like a typical for-profit corporation, where only a few at the top truly thrive."

CKPU wants to work with Kaiser to "ensure safe staffing" and "build the workforce of the future to deal with major projected shortages of licensed and accredited staff in the coming years," the press release said.

"Kaiser is well situated to form a partnership with the unions in which they train and recruit the hundreds of thousands of workers who will be needed in the next decade or two," said Wherley.

Workforce planning is an area of common ground between Kaiser and its unions, Kaiser's senior VP Dabney said. There is also substantial agreement, he noted, in areas such as training and education, performance improvement, eliminating workplace injuries, and forecasting the care needs of patients.

"We believe we have a framework for resolving negotiations successfully, which will address those areas and also continue to provide market-competitive wages and benefits," he stated.

Asked whether it was true that Kaiser wanted to cut pay for new employees, the company responded, "We remain committed to keeping Kaiser Permanente a great place to work and to receive care. We know that to keep reaching this goal, we must provide market-competitive benefits and pay so that we can attract and retain the best employees."

Wherley emphasized that the union members are the backbone of service provision at hospitals across the country. "The service workers are the underlying support of the organization at Kaiser Permanente and other healthcare systems," he said. "Without them, the doctors and the nurses can't provide high quality care."

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