The health system failed to reach a new contract agreement with some of its unionized employees, who have planned a three-day job action in Kaiser’s facilities in several states.
More than 75,000 Kaiser Permanente health care workers began a three-day strike Wednesday, a job action that could cause delays for patients — especially in California — in getting medical appointments, lab results and prescriptions.
After contract talks failed overnight, the walkout started with a small number of employees in Virginia and the District of Columbia, where they set up picket lines outside Kaiser’s facilities. A majority of the Kaiser employees on strike are in California, where the company is based, and the workers were stationed outside hospitals and clinics on Wednesday. Some other work stoppages also began at Kaiser locations in Colorado, Oregon and Washington.
Doctors and many nurses were not involved in the strike, but Kaiser officials warned that some non-urgent procedures might be postponed, some clinic hours might be reduced and that waits on phone calls for assistance could be lengthy. Some locations were also temporarily closed or operating with reduced hours.
Talks appeared to continue on Wednesday, after the previous contract expired over the weekend. But there were few reports of any progress during the day.
At Kaiser Permanente’s West Los Angeles Medical Center, Maria Fixico, a laboratory assistant at Kaiser for 12 years, arrived at 3 a.m. on Wednesday so she could finish working on patient tests before she walked out with colleagues.
“We know these patients. They were worried. They were asking us, ‘Who is going to take care of us?’” said Ms. Fixico. She was among 750 workers jabbing picket signs into the air and dancing to the bass of a DJ beat.
Having worked through the “really, really hard” months of the pandemic, Ms. Fixico said she now is part of a three-member team, down from five. “We’re here because we love to be here, we love our community,” she said. “But we are so short-staffed.”
In addition to lab workers, other participating union members include support staff and other employees, like X-ray technicians, sanitation workers who disinfect rooms between patients and pharmacy workers who help dispense medications. These workers attend surgeries, run imaging equipment and assist in hundreds of Kaiser’s outpatient clinics as well as hospitals.
Kaiser, one of the nation’s largest nonprofit health systems, provides care under its health plans for 13 million people in eight states. Union leaders say this could be the largest strike by health care workers in recent U.S. history.
Workers in Georgia and Hawaii will remain on the job, according to a Kaiser official, and walkouts were expected to be limited in Washington state. In Virginia and the District of Columbia, only pharmacists and optometrists were striking for one day. Maryland workers did not take part.
Kaiser emphasized that it put contingency plans in place, and was keeping all hospitals and emergency departments open.
Mattie Ruffin, 69, has been a nursing assistant at Kaiser for 17 years, bathing patients, feeding them and ensuring they can care for themselves when they are discharged from the hospital.
But she said a lack of adequate staffing had taken a serious toll. When “we’re running room to room, the patients aren’t getting what they need,” Ms. Ruffin said. With so much burnout among workers occurring, “you’re going to see higher hospitalization rates, more infections, more falls,” she said.
The strains of an acute staffing shortage contributed to the tensions between the unions and Kaiser executives in the run-up to the contract’s expiration. The unions said that Kaiser needed to offer better wages to attract more workers and hire enough people to make up for the exodus of staff during the pandemic.
In proposals considered for a new four-year contract, the union had sought a $25 hourly minimum wage and increases of 7 percent in the first two years and 6.25 percent in the two years after, according to a recent proposal.
Kaiser had countered with minimum hourly wages of between $21 and $23 next year, increasing by a dollar a year. Raises would vary among locations.
“It’s so disappointing to see them falling down here,” said Caroline Lucas, the executive director of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, which represents about half of Kaiser’s unionized work force.
While the pandemic caused an immediate crisis in which workers were stretched too thin, Ms. Lucas said employees had been concerned about short staffing even before Covid hit. “For years, there has been a crisis on the horizon,” she said.
Michelle Gaskill-Hames, regional president for Kaiser Permanente in Southern California and Hawaii, had said earlier that Kaiser was dealing with the same staffing problems as other health systems across the country.
Although the strike was expected to last no more than three days, it was likely to cause Kaiser to lose revenue, according to Kevin Holloran, a senior director at Fitch Ratings. “Kaiser will respond by keeping critical infrastructure open, but absent plans to backfill striking team members with temporary help, the strike will very likely result in canceled procedures, reduced volumes, and a brief but sharp decline on provider revenues this week,” he said in an email.
The frustrations of health care workers have been boiling over across the country. Concerns about patient overloads resulted in a nurses’ strike in New York City in January, and there were more than a dozen similar strikes this year in California, Illinois, Michigan and elsewhere.
The tight labor market has emboldened many unionized workers, leading to the recently averted strike at United Parcel Service and current picket lines among autoworkers. “Unions are flexing their muscles in a bunch of industries,” said Ruth Milkman, a professor of sociology and labor studies at the City University of New York.
Many nurses are represented by other unions, including the California Nurses Association, which agreed to a new contract in Northern California last December.
The strike also represents a significant change in Kaiser’s historical relationship with its workers. “I’ve been here 33 years and I’ve never seen it like this,” said Lisa Floyd, a lab assistant who is a member of the bargaining committee. “Kaiser used to pride itself on being the best place to work and the best place to get care. It doesn’t feel like that anymore. It feels like they’ve lost their way.”