Kaiser Permanente healthcare workers in southern California have voted to authorize a strike, setting up the potential for a work stoppage that could cripple operations for the system's facilities in that part of the state.
The outcome does not mean a strike will start immediately. Rather the results give union leaders the authority to set a strike date as long as they give the required 10-day notice in writing to Kaiser Permanente.
If union leaders decide to strike, as many as 21,000 Kaiser Permanente healthcare workers in southern California could walk off the job. The 21,000 union members represent about 28% of Kaiser's nearly 76,000 employees in southern California, where the system operates 14 hospitals and more than 200 clinics.
Officials with the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals said they represent the vast majority of Kaiser's registered nurses in southern California and all of Kaiser's physician assistants, pharmacists, midwives, physical and occupational therapists and optometrists.
Of the 21,000 union members eligible to cast a ballot, more than 18,000 voted and 96% voted in favor of a strike.
Union officials did not say whether they had determined a potential strike date. The earliest date possible to strike would be Oct. 21, given the advanced notice requirement. It would be the largest strike by number of workers in the U.S. so far this year.
The last major strike by this union against Kaiser occurred in 1980, according to union officials.
Kaiser officials have asked that employees reject a call to walk off the job and "away from the patients who need them." In a statement, Arlene Peasnall, senior vice president of human resources at Kaiser Permanente, said, "We are extremely grateful for our front-line health care employees, whose commitment to providing care and service throughout the pandemic has been nothing short of inspiring."
The results signal a strong rebuke from healthcare workers who say they're exhausted from working overtime during the pandemic and remain concerned about staffing levels and the ability to attract and retain nurses in the future.
Kaiser's proposal to create a two-tier wage system, in which new workers are paid less than the current scale, has workers worried it will divide them, potentially create resentment and hamper their ability to recruit talented workers.
"I don't believe it's the way to attract great nurses and retain them. Retention is a huge issue," Jenny Wong-Swanson, a registered nurse who voted in favor of a strike, said.
The union is asking for 4% wage increases each year for the next three years.
"I don't feel like what our nurses and our healthcare workers are asking for is too much," Wong-Swanson said. Though she hopes it doesn't come to a strike, she felt a yes vote was necessary to ensure a fair contract is reached.
"We've really proven our worth and our dedication to our patients. Over the last two years, we've worked without breaks, we've worked without lunches, we worked out of ratio, without resources, short staffed. And we've always gotten the job done, to the detriment of our own health sometimes," Wong-Swanson added.
UNAC/UHCP is part of 21 partner unions under the larger umbrella of the Alliance of Health Care Unions, which leads bargaining.
For more than two decades, Kaiser and the Alliance of Health Care Unions had a labor management partnership agreement in place, which officials considered novel. The partnership ensured that together, management and employees would make decisions in tandem instead of a top-down approach. The partnership was particularly important throughout the pandemic, some say. It has since been put on pause as contract negotiations soured.
Peter Sidhu, a registered nurse who led the bargaining team around staffing issues, said clinicians want more predictability and insight into staffing. But management is not interested in a union recommendation around creating and sharing staffing reports with workers, Sidhu said.
"We wanted on that report, something as simple as: How many people are being hired? How many people are leaving? And if you have positions on hold, what are those positions?"
With more transparency into staffing, it can give overworked clinicians relief if they know a position will soon be filled.
"I think communication is key, because you don't always have to hire somebody. In some situations you may have overstaffed another department and you can shift people over, but having that conversation is imperative," Sidhu said.
The vote to strike comes at an already difficult time for the healthcare industry as many continue to report staffing shortages and worn out workers. Earlier this month, more than 2,000 workers at Catholic Health Mercy Hospital in Buffalo, New York, began an open-ended strike after failing to agree on a new contract.
And a strike at Tenet's St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, is now in its seventh month after 800 nurses walked off the job.
Still, even as the pandemic put enormous strain on providers and created massive upheaval, Kaiser was able to remain profitable.
For full-year 2020, Kaiser reported revenue rose 5% to $88.72 billion and net income dropped 15% to $6.35 billion compared with the year prior.
For the first six months of 2021, Kaiser Permanente reported revenue climbed 5% to $46.87 billion and net income soared 47% to $5 billion compared with the year prior.
Correction: This story provides a corrected number of eligible voters provided by the union. The group now says 21,000, not 24,000 voters were eligible.