On Thursday the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente unions announced that it will begin holding strike approval votes among its 85,000 members starting next Monday and running until September 13.
The coalition represents about half Kaiser PermanenteThe health-care workforce consists of workers in seven states and in Washington, D.C. The organization began its statewide negotiation process with Kaiser in April, but its members say the multimillion-dollar health-care leaders are refusing to address their concerns and provide them with an acceptable contract admit. As of Thursday, the coalition still has 38 days until its current contract expires.
Now that UPS has done it reached an agreement With the Teamsters, labor negotiations between Kaiser and the coalition have become the largest single-employer negotiations in the country. If the coalition approves and carries out the strike, it will be the largest strike by healthcare workers in the country’s history.
The coalition’s main concern is Kaiser’s “dangerous” workforce, which members say has led to excessive wait times, patient neglect and misdiagnoses.
Kaiser said it was confident of reaching an agreement with the coalition before the contract expired and was discouraging its workers from agreeing to the strike.
“You issued a press release and then didn’t appear?”
Debru Carthan, a senior radiology technologist at Kaiser’s Hospital in Modesto, has worked in the healthcare system for 27 years. In an interview on Wednesday, she said she had never seen staff levels as low as they are at the moment. Carthan and her colleagues are being forced to take on what should be enough work for three people, but Kaiser’s staffing levels are so low that patients are still waiting months for their exams, she explained.
“I work in radiology, so we know these are diagnostic tests. These are cancer screening tests where patients have to wait months because we don’t have the staff to care for them. And that’s unacceptable for a healthcare worker who came into the office to care for patients. And we know Kaiser has the financial resources to hire someone,” Carthan said.
Kaiser’s gross understaffing has also robbed workers of the joy they previously got from their jobs, she added.
For example, Carthan often performs mammograms, a procedure that many women find uncomfortable and anxious. She joked with the patients and made sure they were comfortable before this procedure. She often got feedback from them about how much better they felt after talking to her. Now, Carthan never has the time to provide that kind of care, she said.
“In our initial negotiations, Kaiser agreed to hire 10,000 new employees across the coalition by the end of this year. But Kaiser did not show up for the committee’s first planning meeting. You publish a press release and then don’t come? Our patients are important. “Our patients don’t want self-checkout,” Carthan announced.
“Please don’t let me die”
During the press conference where the coalition announced its plans for a strike vote, Liz Grigsby, a respiratory therapist at a Kaiser facility in Sacramento, shared a story about staff shortages that she says often haunt her.
The story from a few years ago was about a patient who fought Covid-19 right after giving birth. Grigsby said this patient repeatedly begged her, saying, “Please don’t let me die.”
“She sought comfort and connection to a familiar face to steady herself during her struggle, and that face was mine.” I promised to stay by her side — to come back and give her the support she so desperately needed needed. But the painful reality of staff shortages prevented me from delivering on that promise. When I came back she was already dead. She was a mother like me,” Grigsby said.
Grigsby said her role is often in a situation where multiple patients are in urgent need of acute care. But given Kaiser’s staffing levels, healthcare workers have been forced into the staggering position of choosing who gets care and who doesn’t, often resulting in poor health outcomes and preventable deaths, she explained.
In a recent coalition survey of 33,000 workers, two-thirds said they had experienced delayed or denied care due to staff shortages.
Poor staffing also leads to months of waiting times for patients seeking treatment, stressed Kaiser benefits specialist Audrey Cardenas Loera during the press conference. She is the mother of a 12-year-old son who was born prematurely and therefore required a lot of medical attention throughout his life. Her family has been waiting since May for him to have surgery scheduled to require him to swallow properly and avoid choking – and her son’s Kaiser caregiver has told them it will be six to nine months before the operation can be added to the calendar.
“As a mother, it’s absolute torture – waiting six to nine months to see if my son will be okay, six to nine months of him struggling and I worry if he’s going to choke in front of my eyes. We end up seeking emergency care because he can’t be seen by his GP. Aside from calling emergency services for something that should have been seen at a regular appointment, it also caused a lot of financial problems,” Cardenas explained to Loera.
Kaiser is “non-profit in name only”
The Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions wants its new contract to include provisions for increased staffing, upskilling training for current employees, and wage increases that keep pace with the cost of living and inflation. The coalition firmly believes that Kaiser has the means to meet these demands. The health system released new financial information This month reveals that the company posted $3 billion in profit for the first half of 2023.
Kaiser is a not-for-profit healthcare system, so it pays no income taxes on its earnings and pays very limited property taxes. However, the organization has made more than $24 billion in profits over the past five years, according to the coalition pointed out. In addition, Kaiser CEO Gregory Adams was paid more than $16 million in 2021 and nearly 50 healthcare system executives will receive more than $1 million in compensation annually.
Kaiser also has investments totaling $113 billion domestically and internationally in areas such as fossil fuels, for-profit prisons, liquor companies, casinos and military weapons, the coalition added.
The healthcare system is “nonprofit in name only,” said Dave Regan, president of SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West, one of the unions involved in the coalition. He also pointed out that the coalition had done its utmost to avoid a strike but felt it had no choice.
“The last three days has been the fifth multi-day negotiation we have had and the Kaiser management negotiation team literally refused to come into the room and speak to us. They’ve taken the stance that they don’t want to speak for frontline healthcare workers – which, given what we’ve all been through, is just incredible from a common sense perspective. But from a legal standpoint, it’s also a violation of the law,” Regan said.
The coalition has filed more than a dozen bad faith negotiation charges against Kaiser, and Regan said the group expects to prevail at the National Labor Relations Board. He also pointed out that the coalition has the option to strike as early as October 1st. If the coalition goes through with this strike, it will be classified as a strike against unfair labor practices. This means the strike will be “essentially about Kaiser’s illegal negotiating behavior,” Regan said.
The coalition’s decision to vote for a strike was incredibly difficult, as a strike would continue to negatively impact patient care, he stressed. However, he argued that a strike was now the only option Kaiser workers had to improve the quality of care in the long term.
“I think everyone should understand how this will impact patient care. The delays get worse, the interference gets worse, the quality gets worse. And we’ve seen all the ads in our area where Kaiser is in the process of recruiting scabs and offering wages three times that of the incumbent staff to stave off a strike. It’s totally taboo and totally unsustainable,” Regan explained.
Kaiser: We are “confident that we can reach an agreement”
In a statement sent to MedCity NewsKaiser said they were “fully committed to reaching an agreement with the coalition.” The health system also said it is asking its workers 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 employees competitive wages and excellent benefits. “We are confident that we will reach an agreement that achieves this goal before the contract expires on September 30,” Kaiser said.
The health system has also defended itself against the coalition’s allegations of unfair labor practices, calling them “unfounded and counterproductive”.
Photo: Flickr user Ted Eytan