The possibility of a historic health care worker strike inched closer to reality Monday after the union representing Kaiser Permanente employees in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., announced their members had voted last week to authorize a work stoppage to protest unfair labor practices if a labor agreement isn’t reached by Sept. 30.
The vote, which concluded on Saturday, follows strike authorization votes by nearly 65,000 Kaiser employees in California, Colorado, Oregon and Southwest Washington in the past two weeks, the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions said in a news release.
The union coalition, which represents more than 85,000 health care workers nationwide — about 1,000 of whom are in the Baltimore area — has been in talks with the California-based health care organization since April. Contracts for many workers expire at the end of the month, meaning they could be on the picket line as soon as Oct. 1, if negotiations don’t succeed by then.
Unionized employees have accused Kaiser of unfair labor practices in bargaining and say wages offered by the health care nonprofit haven’t kept pace with inflation. They also say Kaiser hasn’t done enough to address staffing shortages that were exacerbated during the pandemic and now cause long wait times for appointments and delays in receiving X-rays, phone responses and other patient services.
“Kaiser used to hold itself out as the best place to get care and the best place to work, but it is now failing at both,” said Linda Bridges, president of the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 2, in Monday’s news release.
The union coalition represents about 4,500 Kaiser employees in Maryland, Northern Virginia and D.C., including optometrists, pharmacists, licensed practical nurses, call center workers, surgical techs, respiratory therapists, phlebotomists and other workers.
“Kaiser can and must do better,” Bridges added.
The health care nonprofit is relatively new to the Baltimore area, but has expanded quickly, opening new medical centers and offering plans on the state’s health insurance exchange. Kaiser says it has more than 825,000 members in its mid-Atlantic region.
Rayshetta Brown, a licensed practical nurse at Kaiser’s Woodlawn Medical Center and an employee of the company since 1994, voted in support of a strike. Staffing problems have worsened progressively over the years, she said, creating a work environment that is burning people out.
She worries that if an emergency were to happen at the infusion clinic where she works, there wouldn’t be enough employees to respond to it while keeping other patients safe.
“It’s just very frustrating,” she said. “I don’t know how else to put it.”
Though some unionized Kaiser workers in the region are covered by a contract that expires in December, that wouldn’t prevent them from participating in an unfair labor practices strike in October, Bridges said.
Kaiser, however, argues otherwise. The company has denied the union coalition’s allegations of unfair labor practices.
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In an email Monday to The Baltimore Sun, Kaiser said officials are confident they will reach an agreement with the coalition before the end of the month that “strengthens our position as a best place to work and ensures that the high-quality care our members expect from us remains affordable and easy to access.”
“Kaiser Permanente is a leader in employee wages and benefits in every market we are in,” the statement said. “In bargaining this year, we are offering across the board wage increases, an enterprise-wide minimum wage starting at $21 an hour, continuing our existing excellent health benefits and retirement income plans, and much more. These and our other operational proposals reflect our deep commitment to the economic well-being of our employees.”
Though the recent strike authorization vote doesn’t guarantee a work stoppage will happen, Kaiser said in the statement that it has plans to continue providing care to patients should one occur. It added the vote is “disappointing” considering the progress that has been made at the bargaining table.
“We will urge our employees to reject any call for an actual strike and continue to focus on providing high-quality care and service to our members, patients, and communities who need us to be there for them,” the statement read.
But the union coalition said in its news release that Kaiser’s wage offers were inadequate and other bargaining proposals would worsen the “staffing crisis.” The coalition said the company proposed slashing performance bonuses for employees and removing protections against subcontracting and outsourcing jobs to other companies while it refused to commit to developing the existing workforce or training and recruiting new employees.
In Kaiser’s emailed statement to the Sun, officials called the union coalition’s depiction of the company’s proposals “misleading.”
Kaiser’s next negotiating session with the union coalition is scheduled for Thursday.