Tuesday, October 3, 2023

85,000 Kaiser Workers Will Soon Vote to Authorize What Could Be the Biggest Healthcare Strike in US History – MedCity News

On Thursday, the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions announced that it will begin conducting strike authorization votes among its 85,000 members starting next Monday and going through September 13. 

The coalition represents about half of Kaiser Permanente’s workforce, and it includes workers across seven states and Washington, D.C. The organization began its national bargaining process with Kaiser in April, but its members say the health system’s millionaire executives refuse to address their concerns and give them an acceptable contract. As of Thursday, the coalition has 38 days left before its current contract expires.

Now that UPS has reached a settlement with the Teamsters, the labor negotiations between Kaiser and the coalition have become the largest single-employer negotiations occurring in the country. If the coalition authorizes and implements the strike, it will become the largest strike of healthcare workers in the nation’s history.

The coalition’s chief concern is Kaiser’s “dangerous” staffing levels, which members say have led to excessively long wait times, patient neglect and mistaken diagnosis. 

Kaiser said it is hopeful it can reach an agreement with the coalition before the contract expires and is discouraging its workers from voting yes on the strike.

“You put out a press release and then you don’t show up?”

Debru Carthan, a lead radiologic technologist at Kaiser’s hospital in Modesto, has worked at the health system for 27 years. In a Wednesday interview, she said she has never seen staffing levels as low as they are right now. Carthan and her coworkers are forced to take on workloads that should be for three people, but Kaiser’s staffing levels are so low that patients still have to wait months to get their exams, she explained.

“I work in radiology, so we know that these are diagnostic exams. These are cancer screening exams, and patients have to wait months because we don’t have proper staffing to take care of them. And as a healthcare worker that came into the field to care for patients, this is not acceptable. And we know that Kaiser has the finances to hire,” Carthan declared.

Kaiser’s severely inadequate staffing levels have also robbed its workers of any joy they previously experienced at their job, she added. 

For example, Carthan often performs mammograms, a procedure that many women find uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing. She used to joke with patients and make them feel at ease before this procedure, often getting feedback from them about how much better they felt after talking with her. Now, Carthan never has time to provide that type of care, she said.

“At our first bargaining, Kaiser agreed to hire 10,000 new employees throughout the coalition by the end of this year. But Kaiser did not show up to the first committee planning meeting. You put out a press release and then you don’t show up? Our patients matter. Our patients don’t want self-checkout,” Carthan proclaimed.

“Please don’t let me die”

During the press conference in which the coalition announced its plans for a strike vote, Liz Grigsby, a respiratory therapist at a Kaiser facility in Sacramento, shared a story about short staffing that she said frequently haunts her. 

The story, from a couple years ago, involved a patient who was battling Covid-19 right after giving birth. Grigsby said this patient repeatedly pleaded with her, saying “please don’t let me die.”

“She sought comfort and connection to a familiar face to anchor her during her fight, and that face was mine. I made a promise to her to stay by her side — to come back and to provide the support she desperately needed. But the painful reality of short staffing prevented me from fulfilling that promise. When I came back, she had already died. She was a mother just like myself,” Grigsby said. 

In her role, Grigsby said she is often in a position in which multiple patients are in desperate need of acute care. But with Kaiser’s staffing levels, healthcare workers have been forced into the harrowing position of choosing who gets care and who doesn’t, which often leads to poor health outcomes and avoidable death, she explained. 

In a recent survey the coalition conducted among 33,000 employees, two-thirds said they had seen care delayed or denied due to short staffing.

Poor staffing levels also result in months-long wait time for patients seeking care, Kaiser benefits specialist Audrey Cardenas Loera pointed out during the press conference. She is the mother of a 12 year-old son who was born prematurely, which has caused him to need a lot of medical attention throughout his life. Her family has been waiting since May for him to be scheduled for a surgery he needs to swallow properly and avoid choking — and her son’s Kaiser provider has told them that it will be another six to nine months before the surgery can be added to the calendar.

“As a mother, this is absolute torture — six to nine months waiting to know if my son’s going to be okay, six to nine months of him struggling and me worrying if he’s gonna choke in front of me. We end up using emergency care services because he can’t be seen by his primary care provider. Aside from using emergency services for something that should have been able to be seen in a regular appointment, it also caused a lot of financial struggles,” Cardenas Loera declared.

Kaiser is “nonprofit in name only”

The Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions is seeking for its new contract to include provisions for better staffing levels, education for current employees so they can upskill, and wage increases that keep up with the cost of living and inflation. The coalition is firm in its belief that Kaiser has the means to deliver on these demands. The health system released new financial information this month showing that it made $3 billion in profit during the first half of 2023. 

Kaiser is a nonprofit health system, so it pays zero income taxes on its earnings and very limited property taxes. However, the organization has posted more than $24 billion in profit over the past five years, the coalition pointed out. Additionally, Kaiser CEO Gregory Adams was paid more than $16 million in 2021, and nearly 50 of the health system’s executives are compensated more than $1 million per year. 

Kaiser also has investments totaling $113 billion — both domestically and abroad — in areas such as fossil fuels, for-profit prisons, alcohol companies, casinos and military weapons, the coalition added. 

The health system is “nonprofit in name only,” declared Dave Regan, president of SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West, which is one of the unions included in the coalition. He also noted that the coalition tried its hardest to avoid a strike, but feels that it is left with no other option.

“The last three days was the fifth set of multi-day negotiations we’ve had, and the Kaiser management bargaining team literally refused to even enter the room and talk to us. They’ve taken the position that they don’t want to speak for frontline healthcare workers — which is just from a common sense point of view, an unbelievable thing given what we’ve all been through. But from a legal perspective, it’s also a violation of the law,” Regan said.

The coalition has filed more than a dozen bad faith bargaining charges against Kaiser, and Regan said the group expects to prevail on those with the National Labor Relations Board. He also pointed out that the coalition has the ability to strike as early as October 1. If the coalition goes through with that strike, it will be classified as an unfair labor practice strike. This means the strike will be “fundamentally about the illegal bargaining conduct of Kaiser,” Regan explained.

The coalition’s decision to vote for a strike was incredibly difficult because a strike will further negatively impact patient care, he noted. However, he contended that a strike is now the only choice Kaiser workers have to improve care quality in the long term.

“I think everybody should understand how this will affect patient care. The delays will get worse, the disruptions will get worse, the quality will get worse. And we have all seen ads in our local areas, where Kaiser is right now recruiting strikebreakers and offering wages three times what the incumbent workforce receives for the purposes of defeating a strike. That is totally out of bounds, totally indefensible,” Regan declared.

Kaiser: We are “confident that we will reach an agreement”

In a statement sent to MedCity News, Kaiser said it “is fully committed to reaching an agreement with the coalition.” The health system also said it is urging its employees to reject any call for a strike.

“Our priority is to reach an agreement that is mutually beneficial and ensures we can continue to offer our people market-competitive pay and outstanding benefits. We are confident that we will reach an agreement that achieves that goal, before the contract expires on September 30,” Kaiser said.

The health system also pushed back against the coalition’s allegations of unfair labor practices, calling them “unfounded and counterproductive.”

Photo: flickr user Ted Eytan

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