Sep 26, 2023 - News

Kaiser Permanente strike looms in Pacific Northwest

Illustration of hands in medical gloves holding red picket signs, forming a red cross symbol.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

A group of 4,000 Kaiser Permanente health care workers from across Oregon and Southwest Washington are gearing up for a potential strike next week after months of failed labor agreement talks with executives.

Driving the news: Last Friday, the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions gave a 10-day unfair labor practice strike notice to Kaiser management, on behalf of 70,000 union members in Colorado, California, Oregon, Washington, Virginia, Maryland and D.C.

  • A three-day, nationwide strike is planned for Oct. 4-6, according to Tonia Held, an ophthalmic technician in the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and a bargaining member in SEIU Local 49, which represents the 4,000 Kaiser employees in the Pacific Northwest.
  • Why it matters: Union leaders say this will be the largest strike among health care workers in U.S. history and may impact Kaiser's medical facilities throughout the country, writes Axios' Kate Murphy.

What's happening: If an agreement is not reached after the three-day strike, Held believes there will be an "exodus" of Kaiser workers looking for jobs elsewhere.

  • Right now, there is no scheduled meeting between Kaiser management and the national coalition of unions before Sept. 30, when its current contract expires.

Zoom in: In Oregon and Southwest Washington, SEIU Local 49 represents licensed vocational nurses, surgical technicians, medical assistants, respiratory therapists, X-ray technicians, schedulers, housekeepers and other workers in the field.

  • There are 65 Kaiser locations across Oregon and southwest Washington. Union members are planning to picket at the larger medical facilities next week.

Context: The nationwide coalition has criticized the health care giant for chronic understaffing that's led to "dangerously" long wait times for appointments and delays in patient care services.

  • The coalition says it represents more than 85,000 health care workers overall, roughly 40% of the overall Kaiser Permanente workforce.

State of play: Management proposed cumulative wage increases of 10% to 14% over the multi-year contract and a $21 minimum wage across Kaiser facilities.

What they're saying: "We are very sad we have to make this decision because it impacts our patient care," Held said. "But with what Kaiser is offering, we feel devalued."

  • The coalition's proposal includes cumulative annual pay raises of around 26% in the four-year contract and a $25 per hour minimum wage.
  • The unions see higher pay as part of the solution to the staffing crisis by helping with retention and hiring.

The other side: In a written statement to Axios, a Kaiser spokesperson said that while they hope to reach an agreement before a potential work stoppage, "we have plans in place to ensure we can continue to provide, high-quality care should a strike actually occur."

Of note: Earlier this month, nurses at Oregon Health and Science University also voted to authorize a strike, protesting similar concerns as the Kaiser workers, including short staffing and low pay.


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