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Nearly 60,000 Kaiser Permanente workers say they’re ready to launch a strike if they can’t reach a labor agreement with the healthcare giant by Sept. 30 when their contract expires.

The California employees, represented by SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West, claim they’re understaffed, underpaid and facing a host of other challenges while negotiations drag on.

The union announced Thursday, Sept. 14 that 98% of its workers voted to authorize a walkout. Workers in Oregon, Washington and Colorado also voted to authorize a strike, and additional votes from Kaiser employees in San Diego, Hawaii, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia will be tallied by Wednesday, Sept. 20.

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The California employees, along with members of other Kaiser unions, fall under the umbrella of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, which includes 85,000 workers throughout the U.S.

If a strike occurs, it will affect scores of Kaiser hospitals and clinics, including 23 facilities in Southern California alone.

Two more bargaining sessions are scheduled for next week.

“We take any threat to disrupt care for our members seriously and have comprehensive plans to ensure continued access to needed health care services, should a strike occur later this year,” Kaiser said.

Also see: Healthcare workers call for higher staffing, wages during Labor Day rally

Nurses Grace Cordovez, 31 years at Kaiser, and Fernando Bravo, 22 years, attend a one-day strike at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center in Los Angeles on Thursday, June 23, 2022 as their union negotiates a new labor contract which includes staffing and wages. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
The California employees, represented by SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW), claim they’re understaffed, underpaid and facing a host of other challenges while negotiations drag on. (File photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

The groundswell of worker unrest is centered around several issues. Kaiser union members allege severe understaffing but say the healthcare chain has further undermined the workplace by …

—Slashing performance bonuses for frontline workers while paying top dollar to managers and executives who don’t directly interact with patients

—Removing protections against subcontracting and outsourcing jobs to low-wage, for-profit companies

—Offering starting pay for certain entry-level positions that is not competitive with fast food and retail chains

—Continuing to pay wages that fail to keep pace with rising costs of living

—Refusing to develop existing workforce and to train and recruit enough new employees to meet a projected workforce shortfall

Also see: Nurses to hold ‘solidarity march’ in support of striking writers, actors

Dave Regan, president of SEIU-UHW, said every one of the company’s proposals will make staffing problems worse and further delay patient care.

“Kaiser has failed to bargain in good faith with the caregivers who are doing everything they can to protect patient safety,” Regan said. “We will simply not stand by as Kaiser violates the law and puts patients at risk.”

In a statement released Thursday, Kaiser said it has proposed across-the-board pay increases, including a minimum starting wage of $21 an hour.

“Our priority is to reach an agreement that ensures we can continue to provide market-competitive pay and outstanding benefits,” the company said. “A strike authorization vote does not reflect any breakdown in bargaining, nor does it indicate a strike is imminent or will happen at all.”

Read more: Kaiser workers show solidarity with striking hotel employees

An exodus of healthcare workers has resulted in long wait times for patient appointments and delays in receiving medications, X-rays, phone responses, room assignments and other vital patient services, according to Kaiser employees.

Miriam De La Paz, a unit secretary at Kaiser Permanente Downey Medical Center, said her facility is chronically understaffed.

“We’re running out of caregivers to do the work,” the 43-year-old L.A. resident said. “It’s exhausting, and patients are waiting two or three months just to get an appointment. Imagine if someone is diagnosed with cancer and needs an appointment.”

De La Paz makes $33 an hour but says it’s not enough.

“I can’t keep up with the cost of living,” she said. “Kaiser hires a lot of registry nurses and that’s insane because they complain that they don’t have the means to pay us more, but those registry nurses make double what they pay us.”

Kaiser disputed some of SEIU’s claims.

In regard to performance bonuses, the company said it’s proposing a minimum payment level “to protect our employees from receiving no payout.”

In several of the past few years, performance bonuses would have been eliminated for many employees when Kaiser failed to meet its financial goals, the company said, but workers still received “significant rewards” during the COVID-19 pandemic out of recognition for their work.

That amounted to $276 million in payments to coalition-represented employees over the past three years, Kaiser said.

The company said it has invested $130 million to provide education, skills training and retraining for workers and set a joint goal with workers to hire 10,000 new employees this year — a move that resulted in nearly 9,000 positions filled.

Still, employees say it hasn’t been enough.

“We’re just numbers to them, ” De La Paz said. “Have they even asked our respiratory techs if they have PTSD? Well, some of them do. We’re just tired, burned out and exhausted.”

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