Strike Threat 'Withdrawn' as Kaiser Permanente, Unions Reach Tentative Deal

Ken Terry

September 26, 2019

Kaiser Permanente and the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions reached a tentative contract settlement today, potentially averting a strike scheduled to begin October 14.

Kaiser, in a news release yesterday, said the strike threat has been "withdrawn."

In the coming weeks, a union news release said, more than 85,000 union workers covered by the 4-year agreement will have an opportunity to ratify it. If ratified, the contract will have an effective date of October, Kaiser said.

The tentative contract appears to be a win for the unions after the big HMO threatened to cut pay for new workers and lower raises for existing employees.

Under the agreement, Kaiser employees in California, Oregon, and southern Washington will receive annual raises of 3% in each of the next 4 years. In Colorado, Hawaii, Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia, and the rest of Washington state, workers will receive raises of 3% in the first year and 2% plus a 1% lump sum in each of the following 3 years, the coalition said.

The agreement includes full protection of retirement benefits for current and future employees and an expansion of retirement benefits in Hawaii, Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.

In July, when the coalition threatened to strike, a union spokesman said that Kaiser was planning to cut new employees' pay and lower raises for some workers. After the strike was called in August, Kaiser said it was proposing annual wage increases of 3% through 2022 in northern and southern California.

However, the company also said that its workers were overpaid in some areas of the country, where the prevailing wage structure was lower.

In its statement today, Kaiser said it would provide raises to its union workers across the nation but did not specify what they would be. Pressed for more details by Medscape Medical News, Kaiser Permanente spokesman Marc T. Brown said, "Out of respect for the ratification process, we believe that union members should get information about what is in the tentative agreement from their union's leadership, not us."

Filling Vital Positions

In one other area, the union negotiated a sweeter deal than Kaiser's earlier proposal. In August, Kaiser had offered $40 million over 4 years for workforce training. The union said that the new settlement includes $130 million for that purpose.

The training program is very important to union members, said Rekha Radhakrishnan, a spokesperson for the Service Employees International Union–United Healthcare Workers West, one of the 11 unions in the coalition.

Radhakrishnan told Medscape Medical News that the $130 million will be used to train new people who will be needed to alleviate expected shortages in Kaiser operations.

Along the same lines, the Kaiser announcement noted that employees will have the opportunity to move into new roles in a training capacity and will be guaranteed not to make less than in their former position.

"Once experience requirements are met, they will continue in the normal steps for the position at full rate," the release stated.

The tentative contract also bans the subcontracting of onsite positions such as pharmacy technicians, laboratory technicians, and hospital room cleaners. "Those jobs will be protected and will not be in danger of being subcontracted," Radhakrishnan said.

The union is also concerned about the potential outsourcing of jobs such as those in health IT, she added. Although the news release refers to greater restrictions on outsourcing, the details have yet to be worked out, Radhakrishnan admitted. She said this is something that will be discussed at union ratification meetings.

The "Human Touch"

The agreement calls for "a committee to work through issues around technology to ensure patients receive personal care that integrates cutting-edge tools with quality, dedicated caregivers."

Asked for a translation, Radhakrishnan said that that refers to a collaboration between labor and management to decide how new technologies will be used in healthcare.

For example, she said, a patient may be able to check in at an office kiosk instead of the front desk and to ask a couple of questions before the appointment. Opinions may differ as to whether that is beneficial or alienating to the patient.

Similarly, the union was concerned that its hospitals might introduce robots into patient care, she said. (Kaiser has denied that it would do this.) "They were talking about using automated AI [artificial intelligence] to do the work of caregivers. And our members aren't just there to coldly provide care, there's a human touch. That's important to the workers and is part of how they see their own role, which they'd like to protect."

Because of these concerns, Radhakrishnan said, it's very gratifying to the union negotiators that Kaiser has agreed to share these decisions with its employees. "Part of this labor-management partnership that workers feel really good about is that it will allow them to work together with management on issues like this. It becomes something that they work together on, rather than management making a unilateral decision on which way to go."

Arlene Peasnall, interim chief human resources officer, Kaiser Permanente Health Plan and Hospitals, said in its statement, "Kaiser Permanente has an unparalleled track record of working constructively with labor to solve problems together to improve the care and service offered to our members and patients. We may disagree at times, but we have always been able to work through our challenges to align on common goals."

Speaking for the union coalition, Georgette Bradford, an ultrasound technologist at Kaiser in Sacramento, said in the union release, "Reaching an agreement was not easy, it had lots of twists and turns, but in the end we accomplished what we set out to — reach an agreement that is good for patients, workers, and our communities."

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