Three-day Kaiser strike to end Saturday, but unions warn there could be more

More than 75,000 health care workers will end a three-day strike against Kaiser Permanente in seven states at 6 a.m. Saturday. Company and union negotiators will resume bargaining next week.

The next bargaining session has been scheduled to begin Thursday, Kaiser said in a Friday statement. “We look forward to reaching a new agreement that continues to provide our employees with market-leading wages and benefits, and ensures our high-quality care is affordable and available to meet our members’ needs.”

Michelle Gaskill-Hames, Kaiser’s regional president for Northern California and Hawaii, told The Sacramento Bee earlier this week that bargaining teams had worked through countless issues on the table over the last week.

Only one sticking point remains, she said, and that’s pay.

But the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions say they are focused on putting further limits on outsourcing and subcontracting. On Friday, union members told The Bee that they are not only concerned about the loss of potential jobs but that outsourced workers often are paid at lower rates than Kaiser employees.

“Now, more than ever, Kaiser Permanente needs to retain and attract qualified health care professionals. Outsourcing and subcontracting would have the opposite effect,” said Kathleen Coleman, a medical assistant at Arapahoe Primary Care in Colorado.

The coalition represents many of Kaiser’s lowest-paid employees, and the unions are pushing the health care giant to share more of the billions of dollars in profits it makes annually with them.

Calls for a higher minimum wage

One member of the coalition, the Service Employees International Union-Healthcare Workers West, has campaigned hard for a $25 minimum wage for health care workers.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, Labor Center said that about a half-million health care workers around the state were struggling to survive on their wages, even as they showed up to care for patients amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

If the $25-an hour minimum wage was instituted in the industry, the researchers said, “patients, workers and industry alike would benefit from lower turnover rates, better staffing, and better outcomes, like reduced hospital stays and even lower mortality rates.”

The lowest-paid workers would see a wage increase of 30%, according to a Labor Center study, while average overall costs would rise by about 3% across the affected health facilities.

SEIU-UHW gained support for its $25 minimum wage ballot initiatives in a handful of California municipalities, but legal challenges delayed implementation.

At the same time, the union also advocated for legislation to institute the $25-an-hour wage floor for health care workers in many segments of the industry, but earlier this summer, legislators brokered a compromise bill that would pay workers $23 an hour starting June 2024; $24 hourly starting June 2025; and $25 per hour starting June 2026.

The measure, Senate Bill 525, applies to dialysis clinics, health systems or facilities with 10,000 or more full-time equivalent workers, and health operations affiliated with a county that has a population of 500,000 or more. It’s now sitting on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.

Kaiser officials said they have proposed across-the-board wage increases; a $23 minimum wage starting in 2024 in California; and a $21 minimum wage in Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Hawaii, Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia starting in 2024.

The coalition unions represent workers in many different occupations, including licensed vocational nurses, emergency department technicians, radiology technicians, ultrasound sonographers, teleservice representatives, respiratory therapists, optometrists, certified nursing assistants, behavioral health workers, surgical technicians, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians, transporters, home health aides, phlebotomists, medical assistants, dental assistants, call center representatives, and housekeepers.

Consequently, this strike, which labor experts have called the largest ever in the U.S. health care industry, has touched virtually every aspect of Kaiser’s patient care operations.

The union called this week’s strike over unfair labor practices, alleging in complaints to the National Labor Relations Board that Kaiser has not provided information that would assist in evaluating compensation offers and other mandatory bargaining issues. Company negotiators also tried to force the coalition to limit the size of its bargaining team, the unions said.

Although negotiators will return to bargaining on Thursday and Friday, the coaliton said the unions are considering issuing a 10-day strike notice if Kaiser executives continue to commit unfair labor practices and bargain in bad faith.

Kaiser has denied the allegations, and Gaskill-Hames told The Bee that Kaiser takes a great deal of pride in its labor-management partnership and talks with labor collectively not only during bargaining but throughout the contract period about how to build upon Kaiser’s success.