A labor contract for thousands of unionized health care workers across five states and Washington, DC, is set to expire on Saturday at 11:59 pm PT, potentially triggering the largest health care strike in US history.
More than 75,000 health care employees who work at hundreds of Kaiser Permanente facilities plan to strike from October 4 through October 7 if a labor deal is not reached.
While hospital management, doctors and registered nurses are not part of the work stoppage, experts say patients at Kaiser Permanente, which is one of the nation’s largest not-for-profit health providers, would likely feel the effects of the strike.
Nearly half of Kaiser Permanente’s workforce may strike
The workers who would strike across California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Virginia, and Washington, DC, are part of a coalition of eight unions. They work in a wide range of health care support positions, which include nursing assistants, x-ray technicians, pharmacists and optometrists, among other roles. The coalition represents about 40% of all of Kaiser Permanente’s staff, according to spokesperson Renee Saldana of Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare (SEIU-UHW). The SEIU-UHW is the largest union in the coalition.
In a statement to CNN on Thursday, Hilary Costa, a spokesperson for Kaiser Permanente, said progress had been made in the negotiations and urged workers to reject calls for a strike.
“While a strike threat is disappointing, it does not necessarily mean a strike will happen,” Costa said. “We take any threat to disrupt care for our members seriously and have plans in place to ensure we can continue to provide high-quality care should a strike actually occur next week.”
A short-term strike would likely not impact Kaiser Permanente’s revenue. Unlike traditional fee-for-service medical systems in the United States, Kaiser Permanente patients pay membership dues for health care services. Kaiser Permanente has 12.7 million members and operates 39 hospitals and 622 medical offices, according to its website.
If a resolution isn’t reached after a possible October strike, the SEIU-UHW said the coalition is prepared to launch a “longer, stronger” strike in November, when a separate contract expires for some unionized employees in Washington state, potentially adding additional workers to the picket line.
The coalition is asking for across-the-board raises to address the rising cost of living, job protections against outsourcing and subcontracted workers, updates to employees’ retiree medical benefits and a plan from Kaiser Permanente to address a staffing shortage “crisis” that left employees feeling overworked, according to SEIU-UHW’s website.
“Workers are really being squeezed right now,” said Saldana. “They went through the worst global health crisis in a generation and then they come out and they’re worried about paying rent, they’re worried about losing their house, they’re worried about living in their cars.”
Efforts to reach a deal are ongoing
The latest update from the coalition shows that the two sides are still far apart. The coalition is asking for an across-the-board 6.5% raise in the first two years of the labor contract and a 5.75% raise in the the next two years. According to the SEIU-UHW website, Kaiser Permanente has offered a maximum 4% raise for the first two years of the contract and a 3% raise for the next two years.
Betsy Twitchell, a representative for the coalition of Kaiser Permanente unions, told CNN that contract negotiations with Kaiser Permanente management will continue Saturday ahead of the 11:59 pm deadline.
“There can be no agreement until Kaiser executives stop bargaining in bad faith with frontline healthcare workers over the solutions needed to end the Kaiser short-staffing crisis,” Twitchell said.