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Kaiser Permanente workers launch massive strike over staffing and pay

75,000 health care workers set to strike
Largest health care strike in U.S. history possible 03:12

More than 75,000 workers with Kaiser Permanente launched a strike on Wednesday at hospitals and medical centers across six states and Washington, D.C., the largest walkout by health care employees in U.S. history.

Workers walked off the job at 6 a.m. EDT in Virginia and the District of Columbia and were set to do the same at 6 a.m. local time in California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, according to the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, which represents 85,000 Kaiser workers in several states and D.C. The strike is set to last three days, from Oct. 4 through Oct. 7.

The dispute centers on what the coalition said is a severe staffing shortage that puts Kaiser workers patients and workers in jeopardy. The workers involved include nurses, orderlies, radiology and lab technicians, respiratory therapists and housekeepers. The company is the largest managed care organization in the U.S., serving 13 million people. 

Kaiser workers contend that chronic understaffing is boosting the company's bottom line but harming patients and staff morale. Kaiser maintains it's doing the best it can in an industry with a shortage of workers.

Kaiser workers are burning themselves out "trying to do the jobs of two or three people, and our patients suffer when they can't get the care they need due to Kaiser's short-staffing," Jessica Cruz, a licensed vocational nurse at Kaiser Los Angeles Medical Center, said in an emailed statement.

The disagreements have persisted after months of contract talks between Oakland-based Kaiser and the coalition. 

"A strike is not inevitable, and it is certainly not justified," Kaiser said last week in a statement as negotiations continued. "We understand and share the frustration, the burnout and the exhaustion." 

Kaiser's hospitals and emergency departments will remain open should a strike occur, staffed by Kaiser physicians, managers and staff. "In some cases we will augment with contingent workers," the company said.

Kaiser started posting notices to patients on its various regional sites listing impacts of the walkout. One such notice reads, "We are disappointed that some unions have called on employees to participate in labor strikes.... As a result of this activity, we may experience high call volumes resulting in longer than usual wait times. We apologize for any inconvenience and appreciate your patience."

"Heartbreaking" job

Workers who spoke to CBS MoneyWatch relayed frustration at having to rush to care for too many patients with too little time and not enough backup. 

Employed by Kaiser for 27 years, ultrasound technician Michael Ramey said the job he once loved is "heartbreaking" and "stressful" due to a staffing crisis that he and his colleagues argue harms both employee morale and patient treatment. 

"You don't have the ability to care for patients in the manner they deserve," said Ramey, 57, who works at a Kaiser clinic in San Diego and is president of his local union. "We are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure we have a contract in place that allows us to be staffed at the levels where we need to be."

Worker fatigue also takes a toll. "People are working more hours than they want to be working, and even that creates a problem with patient care -- if you know you're going to miss your kid's soccer game," he gave as an example.

Interacting with patients, Ramey fields complaints of not being able to schedule medical procedures in a timely fashion. "They are telling you how long it took to get the appointment, and then you have to tell them how long it will be to get results," Ramey said. "There's a breakdown in the quality of care. These are people in our communities." 

Delays in scheduling care

For Stockton, California, resident and Kaiser pharmacy technician Savonnda Blaylock, the community includes her 70-year-old mother, who struggled to get an appointment for an emergency scan of a blockage in her colon. "This staffing crisis is coming into our living rooms right now," Blaylock said. 

"If we have to walk off, it impacts not just my mom but a lot of patients," said Blaylock, 51, who has worked 22 years for Kaiser and, like Ramey, has a seat at the bargaining table. Still, her mom and others understand that "our patients are why we're doing it," she said of the potential strike. 

"Every health care provider in the nation has been facing staffing shortages and fighting burnout," and Kaiser Permanente "is not immune," Kaiser Permanente said in an emailed statement. 

Kaiser and the coalition agreed in prior bargaining to hire 10,000 people for coalition-represented jobs by the end of the year, a goal the company expects to reach by the end of October, if not sooner. "We are committed to addressing every area of staffing that is still challenging," it said.

Strike looms for thousands of Colorado health care workers 02:31

"The average American should see workers on strike, especially in health care, as advocates for them, too," Gabriel Winant, an assistant professor of U.S. history at the University of Chicago, said. 

"What workers are fighting for is a health care system where there is enough staff, and the staff has proper and safe working conditions," said Winant, author of "The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America."

Kaiser workers' contention that patients are getting short-changed is likely to resonate with the public, according to Winant. "It's an American experience, not getting someone in the health care system to pay attention to you," he said.

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