The largest healthcare walkout in recent U.S. history started Wednesday morning as 75,000 Kaiser Permanente workers began a three-day strike.
The strike represents the first time in over 25 years Kaiser’s labor relations have fractured to the point of a work stoppage, and comes after six months of negotiations failed to produce a mutually acceptable contract.
The coalition gave Kaiser notice it would strike weeks earlier, on Sept. 22, before the contract officially expired this past weekend. Bargaining has continued past the labor agreement’s expiration. As recently as this morning, Hilary Costa, communications manager for Kaiser, told Healthcare Dive that the parties had worked “through the night” in an effort to reach consensus.
“There has been a lot of progress, with agreements reached on several specific proposals late Tuesday,” Costa said.
Kaiser Permanente workers plan to return to work on Oct. 7 if an agreement is not reached before then, according to the coalition.
However, the coalition warned a “longer, stronger” strike may come in November and include Washington State union members if a deal between the coalition and Kaiser Permanente is not reached after the strike.
Who is striking
The employees striking are members of eight unions comprising 40% of Kaiser Permanente’s total staff, according to the coalition. They work at “hundreds of Kaiser Permanente hospitals” in California, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
The workers include nursing staff, dietary staff, receptionists, optometrists and pharmacists. The largest union involved in the strike is SEIU-UHW, which represents Kaiser workers in Northern and Southern California and will have 59,200 members on the picket line, according to Renée Saldaña, press secretary for SEIU-UHW.
A separate Kaiser strike, held by UFCW Local 555, which represents Kaiser workers in Oregon, began on Oct. 1 and is set to last for 21 days. UFCW opted out of national bargaining with Kaiser and the coalition last month.
The issues in contention
Kaiser, one of the nation’s largest not-for-profit health providers, has been renowned for its novel labor strategy since the late 1990s, when executives disavowed hard-on labor tactics in favor of a collaborative approach, experts told Healthcare Dive. In past bargaining cycles, parties have typically agreed to contracts months ahead of terms’ expirations, union members told Healthcare Dive.
However during current negotiations, union members and Kaiser executives have clashed over proposals for staffing and wage increases, according to statements from both parties.
The union coalition is demanding higher pay — an issue that the unions say the parties remain “far apart” on. The coalition wants an across-the-board 6.5% raise in the first two years of the new contract and a 5.75% raise in the next two years.
As of Oct. 1, Kaiser Permanente re-offered location-dependent wage increases, with a maximum of 4% for each of the four years of the new contract. In a Sept. 30 statement, Kaiser Permanente said it is a leader in pay.
“We lead total compensation in every market where we operate, and our proposals in bargaining would ensure we keep that position,” Costa said.
The coalition rejected that offer, writing in an online update on Oct. 2, “We did not agree to their proposal. We have told Kaiser that we are not changing our wage proposal and that only a unified, respectful wage increase across the coalition will result in an agreement.”
The parties have made progress in negotiating some issues, including protections from outsourcing, shift differentials and 60-day notice before remote staff are required to return to in-person work, according to a spokesperson for SEIU-UHW.
Kaiser’s contingency plan
Kaiser confirmed on Tuesday it has “robust contingency plans in place to ensure members continue to receive safe, high-quality care should a strike occur.”
The hospital system plans to use contract workers to backfill some positions this week, according to Costa. However, Kaiser said it may need to reschedule non-emergency and elective services in some locations. It is also encouraging members to use pharmacy mail order services for prescriptions during the strike.
Patients who need care urgently should not be dissuaded from seeking it, Costa added.
“Our hospitals and emergency departments will remain open. Our facilities will continue to be staffed by our physicians, trained and experienced managers, and staff, and in some cases we will augment with contingent workers,” according to Costa.