Union health care workers, who plan to strike Nov. 15, say the HMO won’t budge on staffing, two-tier pay
Burnout is up, employment levels are down and inflation is everywhere. And Kaiser nurses are fed up.
On Nov. 4 the Oregon Federation of Nursing and Health Professionals Local 5017 (OFNHP) announced they would strike Nov. 15. Should the union fail to reach a deal with Kaiser before then, more than 30,000 health care workers on the West Coast will walk off the job.
A key conflict during contract negotiations with Kaiser has been a proposed two-tiered wage system, which gives a lower pay scale to incoming employees. Union leaders say the move would reduce wages for new hires between 26 and 39% from their current levels.
Strike organizers say the system would make it more difficult to hire new staff in a hiring environment that’s already highly competitive — and that will place an additional burden and stress on existing staff.
Kaiser representatives say Kaiser workers earn higher wages than their counterparts across the country.
Workers are already closer to the picket line than 2019, where an impasse in negotiations led to a strike authorization. Now they are one step closer.
If the strike happens, 3,200 healthcare workers in Oregon and Southwest Washington could walk out. They will be joined by the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals and United Steelworkers Local 7600, representing 32,000 Kaiser employees. The Guild of Professional Pharmacists in California could follow, adding 8,000 more to the strike.
If the strike goes through, as is looking more and more likely, it will be the largest in U.S. history.
The union has demanded a 4% wage raise for the next three years as well as a commitment to hire more health care workers to support overtaxed staff, and a restructuring of the tenure-based pay structure, which they claim to be turning people away from Kaiser, and causing burnout among staff.
“This isn't just about wages, this is what the workplace looks like,” says Hannah Winchester, a home health physical therapist at Kaiser and organizer at the OFNHP Local 5017. “It’s about how we retain people so that we don't find ourselves in this same situation three months from now.”
Winchester says according to an internal poll, 50% of union members were considering leaving their jobs at Kaiser, and 40% leaving the healthcare profession altogether. She says the negotiations provide Kaiser with an opportunity to become an industry leader in addressing burnout.
“Kaiser often leads the industry in a lot of ways. Being both an insurer and provider has a lot of other systems watching. We have an opportunity to stop this bleed of healthcare workers leaving the profession,” she says. “This is a big turning point for them. If they continue to take the route they’re taking they could lose that title to other companies.”
Ironically, Kaiser has been a leader in research on health care worker burnout. An April survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found stress had become an epidemic among healthcare workers. More than half of front-line health care workers — 55% — reported experiencing mental and physical exhaustion from chronic workplace stress, the survey said. The youngest staff members — those between the ages 18 and 29 — were the most likely to report burnout, with 69% saying they were burned out. Younger staff members were also most likely to report mental health issues, with 75% saying they were struggling. And majority of all health care workers — 62% — reported mental health problems.
Kaiser has repeatedly pointed to relatively high wages for their workers during bargaining. In a statement, Kaiser described its union workforce as being paid more than “many areas” of the country, earning wages 26% to 38% above average market rates, approximately equal to the amount covered by the new two-tiered wage system.
“We are extremely grateful for our frontline health care workforce,” says Michael G. Foley, director of integrated communications at Kaiser Permanente, who says the staff’s COVID-19 pandemic efforts “Nothing short of inspiring.”
Foley says Kaiser is continuing to take steps to reduce employee burnout, citing the amounts of additional money Kaiser has spent to support its workforce.
“Through this pandemic we provided $60 million in additional benefits in this region for child care, housing and extra leave when needed.”
Winchester described the wage numbers as “misleading.” Like all averages, they take into account a broad spectrum number of rural hospitals where wages and cost of living are much lower.
Kaiser has pledged to operate its facilities regardless of a strike, and is currently recruiting replacement workers in the event the strike goes through. The company is offering replacement nurses $12,500 a week, according to recruitment posts.
Union activity has seen a consistent uptick over the last three years.
Kaiser workers join Nabisco bakers, who struck for more than a month as the summer came to a close, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which voted to authorize a strike but ultimately reached a deal before walking out — and, elsewhere, John Deere workers and Kellogg’s cereal plant workers in a flurry of labor activity this fall. The Kaiser walkout also wouldn’t be the first health care strike this year: this spring, workers at St. Charles Medical Center in Bend struck for 11 days.
“This has brought a bunch of unions and organizations on our radar. That collective action and communication has bolstered support everywhere. It’s really building momentum,” says Winchester.
“People are realizing it's okay to speak up. You don’t just have to put down your head, suck it up and go to work every day.”
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