In a historic show of unity, more than 75,000 healthcare professionals, including nurses, emergency department technicians, pharmacists, and various other critical staff, have initiated a nationwide strike across hundreds of Kaiser Permanente hospitals and medical centers. Their primary objective is to exert significant pressure on their employer to address a staffing shortage crisis that has been exacerbated since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This monumental strike, hailed as the largest in US healthcare history by the unions involved, spans multiple states, including California, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Most participating Kaiser workers plan to remain on strike for three days, concluding on Saturday morning, with the exception of those in Virginia and Washington, D.C., who will strike for 24 hours.
Despite this extraordinary demonstration, Kaiser Permanente has assured the public that its hospitals and emergency departments will continue to operate, staffed by physicians and other essential personnel. The organization has taken steps to onboard professionals to fulfill critical care roles during the strike.
Kaiser has also alerted patients to the potential rescheduling of non-emergency and elective services. In response to any temporary outpatient pharmacy closures, it is expanding its network of pharmacy locations to include community pharmacies, ensuring patients’ continued access to medication. Inpatient pharmacies at Kaiser hospitals will remain operational. Approximately 60% of Kaiser employees, including doctors, will continue to provide essential services during the strike.
This massive healthcare workforce walkout is rooted in a staffing shortage crisis, leading to challenging working conditions that make it increasingly difficult to retain Kaiser employees. Simultaneously, it has resulted in a decline in the quality of care for patients. As of April this year, around 11% of union positions remained vacant, according to data from Kaiser obtained by the unions.
“Health care workers choose this profession because it’s a passion for them. It’s a calling. And folks don’t feel comfortable staying at jobs where they don’t feel like they can give the best patient care possible.”
– Caroline Lucas, executive director of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions
The unions allege that Kaiser has engaged in unfair labor practices by failing to negotiate in good faith to address the staffing crisis, an accusation that Kaiser disputes.
Employees like Brooke El-Amin, with over two decades of service at Kaiser, have emphasized the adverse impact of staffing shortages on patient care. They believe that the strike’s objective is to compel Kaiser to enhance patient care in the long term.
“I don’t want to strike. But I feel like Kaiser is already letting down our patients — they’re already letting down the employees.”
The contract for employees represented by a coalition of unions expired on September 30, and negotiations on key issues, including wages, remain unresolved. Although there has been progress in talks regarding issues like outsourcing and subcontracting protections, the unions are pushing for a nearly 25% pay raise for all members, alongside improved benefits. Such changes, they argue, would incentivize both retention and the attraction of new healthcare workers, ultimately alleviating the staffing shortage.
Kaiser has countered with offers ranging from 12.5% to 16% raises over four years and claims to be close to its goal of hiring 10,000 more unionized workers by the end of 2023 to fill vacancies.
Keyani Adigun, a clinical pharmacist based in Washington, D.C., recounted the challenges she faced during the pandemic, emphasizing the difficulty of meeting patient needs as many of her colleagues departed from Kaiser Permanente.
Furthermore, she asserted that even more than three years since the onset of COVID-19 in the United States, her employer has not sufficiently allocated resources to address these ongoing challenges.
“I hope that Kaiser leadership hears our voices before joining the picket line. “The harder we work, the less resources we start to see.”
– Keyani Adigun
The healthcare provider acknowledges the industry-wide staffing shortages and burnout issues but asserts that its compensation and benefits packages are more competitive. Nonetheless, workers argue that substantial wage increases are essential to stem the tide of departures and create a compelling reason for employees to stay.
In conclusion, this unprecedented strike by Kaiser Permanente healthcare professionals underscores the critical need for addressing staffing shortages and improving conditions for both employees and patients. The outcome of this historic labor action may have far-reaching implications for the healthcare industry as a whole. Stay tuned for further updates on this evolving situation.