Approximately 65,000 Kaiser Permanente healthcare workers have thus far voted to authorize a strike if union representatives and the nonprofit health system cannot successfully negotiate new contract terms for Kaiser workers by Sept. 30.
The workers are part of an coalition of 85,000 employees, consisting of twelve Kaiser unions, collectively called the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions. Coalition unions began voting to authorize a strike in late August after union representatives said contract negotiations with the health system had stalled. The coalition represents workers across seven states and Washington, D.C.
Members of the largest union in the coalition, SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW), on Thursday voted to authorize a strike by a margin of 98%, according to a statement from the union. SEIU-UHW represents almost 60,000 Kaiser workers in northern California.
On the same day, 4,000 healthcare workers in Oregon and Southwest Washington also voted to authorize a strike, according to a release from their union.
Though voting will continue at coalition unions through Sept. 20, 75% of coalition members have now signaled they will strike if terms aren’t met. Should the strike occur, it will be the largest in the history of the healthcare industry, according to the coalition — potentially creating disruptions for some of Kaiser’s 11 million patients. The earliest the strike could begin is Oct. 1, per the coalition.
Kaiser urged other employees not to authorize a strike, according to a statement released Thursday. The health system called the union’s claims about its bargaining practices “misleading,” and said it has a comprehensive plan in place to ensure continued access to healthcare should a strike take place.
Parties last negotiated a national contract for Kaiser workers in 2019. This year, they began negotiations in April, according to Jeffrey Sanders, a contract specialist for SEIU Local-49. Negotiations have centered around solutions to address the “staffing crisis,” and the union has asked for higher staffing ratios and increased pay, he said.
“We need to have our workers earning a livable wage where they can work a job without having to work multiple jobs, without having to live out of their cars, without having to live with their relatives,” Sanders told Healthcare Dive.
While Sanders initially entered bargaining sessions optimistic, he told Healthcare Dive that, absent “some sort of magic,” he doubts the parties will meet the Sept. 30 deadline for creating a new contract.
Union representatives have called for a 7% increase in wages nationwide and a $25 per hour minimum wage for union employees. Kaiser last responded with a proposal offering a wage increase of 4% in select markets.
In a statement, Kaiser said the company is confident that an agreement will be reached.
“Kaiser Permanente is fully committed to reaching an agreement with the unions affiliated with the Coalition just as we have done in every national bargaining since 1999,” the health system said in a statement from August.
Kaiser has committed to accelerate hiring and has set a goal of hiring 10,000 new people for Coalition-represented jobs in 2023 — to date, the health system has already filled 6,500 of those positions. Kaiser also said it pays “up to 10% above market.”
The parties will meet next week for a final bargaining session, according to the coalition.