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Kaiser Permanente workers launch historic strike over staffing and pay

Kaiser Permanente health care workers go on strike
75,000 Kaiser Permanente health care workers go on strike 02:14

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

The work stoppage involving nurses, lab technicians, pharmacists and other workers started at 6 a.m. local time at hundreds of Kaiser hospitals and medical offices in California, Colorado, Oregon, Virginia, Washington and Washington, D.C., according to the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions.

Workers at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center cheered as the strike deadline came. Brittany Everidge was among those on the picket line. A ward clerk transcriber in the medical center's maternal child health department, she said staffing shortages mean pregnant women who are in labor can be kept waiting for hours to get checked in.

The strike, which is scheduled to last three days, threatens to disrupt medical services for almost 13 million people, curtailing nonessential care like routine checkups. Hospitals and emergency departments will continue to operate, staffed by doctors, managers and "contingent workers," said Oakland-based Kaiser, among the nation's biggest providers of managed care services. 

Kaiser management and union representatives held talks Tuesday and Wednesday, but those sessions "unfortunately ended without a settlement," Kaiser said in a statement late Wednesday afternoon.

However, the two sides "were able to reach a number of tentative agreements in bargaining," Kaiser added.

The massive work stoppage comes amid a surge of activity by organized labor across an array of industries, including the United Auto Worker's strike against Detroit's Big Three automakers

The strike by Kaiser workers drew words of solidarity from UAW President Shawn Fain.

"Whether you work in a hospital, or behind a desk, or on an assembly line, your fight is our fight," Fain said Wednesday in a statement. "We all deserve our fair share of the economy we, as working people, create and run. To our union family on strike at Kaiser, the UAW has your back." 

"Breakdown" in patient care

Kaiser workers contend that chronic understaffing is boosting the company's bottom line but harming patients and staff. Kaiser maintains it's doing the best it can in an industry with a shortage of workers. Employees who spoke to CBS MoneyWatch expressed frustration at having to rush to care for too many patients with too little time and not enough backup. 

Ultrasound technician Michael Ramey, who has worked at Kaiser for 27 years, 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."

Kaiser employees strike.
Kaiser Permanente employees rally on the first day of a three-day strike at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023, in Los Angeles, California.  Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In his interactions with patients, Ramey said he often hears customer complaints about 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," he said. "There's a breakdown in the quality of care. These are people in our communities." 

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 Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions is also asking for a $25 hourly minimum wage, as well as increases of 7% each year in the first two years and 6.25% each year in the two years afterward.

Kaiser said in its latest statement that it has offered a minimum hourly wage of $25 in California and $23 in all other states. 

"Hospital strikes are complicated. Unlike striking at an auto plant for example, you don't want to close down the facility," Gabriel Winant, a labor expert and assistant professor of U.S. history at the University of Chicago, told CBS MoneyWatch. "If you strike at a hospital, people can die. That's not your goal."

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