Pueblo Kaiser Permanente workers strike over wages, staffing shortages

Health care workers in Kaiser Permanente’s Pueblo facilities went on strike Wednesday, joining tens of thousands of other Kaiser employees across the country who joined the picket line to protest the health care company's wages and staffing shortage.

Workers in Kaiser’s Acero medical clinic and its Pueblo North facility stood outside the clinic and were joined by countless others in a strike line after Kaiser and Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions failed to reach an agreement on a new contract. The workers' previous contract with Kaiser ended Saturday and the union said it would strike if a new deal wasn’t reached by Wednesday morning.

More than 99% of Kaiser employees in Colorado earlier this month voted to authorize a strike. Stephanie Felix-Sowy, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 105 chapter that represents those employees, told the Chieftain last week Kaiser and the coalition hadn’t reached an agreement because of disputes over wages and staffing.

Kaiser Permanente workers hold sign while on strike for the second day outside the southside Pueblo location on Thursday, October 5, 2023.
Kaiser Permanente workers hold sign while on strike for the second day outside the southside Pueblo location on Thursday, October 5, 2023.

Kaiser in a statement to the Chieftain said it had a plan in place to continue to provide care at its Pueblo facilities if a strike by local workers began. The three-day strike is scheduled to end Friday.

“We have a staffing shortage and I see it every day in the work I do,” said Christina Banuelos, a 14-year Kaiser employee who works in Pueblo and helps schedule appointments for patients. “People will call in to get an MRI or CT scan, but because of the staffing shortage, it takes three to four months, sometimes even five, to (get an appointment). I just think that’s unacceptable health care for our patients. They deserve better.”

Banuelos, a co-strike captain for local Kaiser workers, said she saw a lot of her colleagues leave shortly after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic because of “burn out.” She said Kaiser hasn’t done enough to alleviate the staffing woes that grew during that time and that patients have felt the brunt of that, left wondering what ailment they’re dealing with because it takes too long to get an appointment.

Alyssa Guidry, a nine-year Kaiser employee who works out of Kaiser’s Pueblo North facility and is strike captain alongside Banuelos, said she too walked off the job to “bring awareness to Kaiser's unfair labor practices.” She added that Kaiser has “refused” to bargain in good faith during negotiations with the union.

“It’s very difficult to get time off because we don’t have enough people to cover vacations or sick days,” Guidry said of how the staffing shortage has affected workers at Kaiser’s Pueblo locations. “Oftentimes, we work short because we work two- or three-person jobs.”

More: Why some Pueblo healthcare workers might go on strike this week

Guidry called Kaiser’s hiring practices “broken” and said that some positions are left unfilled because Kaiser won’t hire anybody or it takes too long for them to do so, pushing potential hires to look elsewhere.

“We want to bring back Kaiser as being the best place to work and we also want to (offer) the best patient care that we can,” Guidry said. “When you’re doing three people's jobs, it’s hard to do that.”

Kaiser’s Pueblo employees were joined on the strike line by several of the city's elected officials. Mayor Nick Gradisar, County Commissioner Daneya Esgar, state Sen. Nick Hinrichsen and House Rep. Tisha Mauro participated in Wednesday’s strike. City councilors Vicente Martinez Ortega, Heather Graham, Sarah Martinez and Larry Atencio and Pueblo School District 60 board members Sol Sandoval and Tommy Farrell were there, too.

Democratic congressional candidate Adam Frisch and state House Rep. Matt Martinez were at the strike Thursday, said Hilary Glasgow, executive director of the Colorado Workers for Innovative and New Solutions union.

Gradisar, who was holding up a sign that read, “Strike Kaiser Execs, Provide Better Care,” said he came out because he “believes in the right to organize collectively” and that he thought it was important to show support for workers who are bargaining for better wages and working conditions.

“I was very nervous coming out today thinking that it would be a small turn out,” Banuelos said. “It’s nice to see the community stand behind us and know that the patients and community deserve good health care.”

A Kaiser spokesperson in a statement Wednesday evening said that a contract settlement had not been reached during “marathon” bargaining sessions that lasted between Tuesday night and into Wednesday.

“We will coordinate with coalition leaders to reconvene bargaining as soon as possible,” the spokesperson said in the statement. “We will work hard to reach an agreement so that together, we can all return to delivering on the mission of Kaiser Permanente for the benefit of our members, patients, employees, physicians, customers and communities.”

The Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions is seeking wage increases over the next four years, a minimum wage of $25 an hour and a $1,500 performance bonus regardless of Kaiser’s financial goals, among other demands.

Chieftain reporter Josue Perez can be reached at JHPerez@gannett.com. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, at @josuepwrites. Support local news, subscribe to The Pueblo Chieftain at subscribe.chieftain.com.

This article originally appeared on The Pueblo Chieftain: Kaiser workers in Pueblo strike over wages, staffing shortages