In a historic labor action, over 75,000 healthcare workers, including nurses, pharmacists, emergency department technicians, and more, have embarked on a massive strike across multiple states, demanding that Kaiser Permanente address a staffing crisis that has escalated since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The strike, organized by the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, represents the largest strike of healthcare workers in U.S. history.
Scope of the Strike
The strike, which began on Wednesday, targets Kaiser Permanente facilities in California, Colorado, Oregon, Virginia, the District of Columbia, and Washington state. Kaiser Permanente, one of the largest nonprofit healthcare providers in the United States, serves nearly 13 million patients and operates 39 hospitals along with over 600 medical offices across these regions.
Reasons for the Strike
Healthcare professionals participating in the strike cite a severe staffing shortage that has created challenging working conditions, leading to difficulties in retaining employees and a decline in the quality of care provided to patients. According to Kaiser data obtained by the unions, approximately 11% of union positions were vacant as of April this year.
Caroline Lucas, the executive director of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, emphasized that healthcare workers are passionate about their profession but feel compelled to leave jobs where they cannot provide the best possible patient care. Workers allege that Kaiser has engaged in unfair labor practices by not engaging in good-faith bargaining to resolve the staffing crisis, an accusation Kaiser denies.
Impact on Patients
Kaiser Permanente has assured patients that its hospitals and emergency departments will remain open during the strike and staffed by physicians and other personnel. However, non-emergency and elective services may be rescheduled, and the organization is expanding its network of pharmacy locations to ensure continued medication access. Inpatient pharmacies at Kaiser hospitals will remain operational.
Approximately 60% of Kaiser employees, including doctors, will continue working during the strike, but the unions argue that substantial improvements in wages and working conditions are necessary to retain and attract healthcare professionals, ultimately mitigating the staffing shortage.
Negotiations and Union Demands
The collective bargaining agreement for employees represented by the coalition of unions expired on September 30, leading to the strike action. While some progress has been made in negotiations, including a 40% increase in an education fund, the unions are demanding a pay raise of nearly 25% for all members and improved benefits, such as medical coverage for retirees.
Kaiser has countered with raises ranging from 12.5% to 16% over four years and claimed to be close to its goal of hiring an additional 10,000 people in union roles by the end of 2023 to fill vacancies. The organization contends that staffing shortages and burnout are industry-wide issues and highlights that its compensation and benefits packages are competitive.
National Labor Tensions
The strike by Kaiser Permanente employees adds to a series of labor actions across various industries in 2023, including the United Auto Workers’ strikes and the recent Hollywood writers’ walkout. The healthcare sector, in particular, has grappled with staffing shortages exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As tens of thousands of Kaiser Permanente employees take part in the largest healthcare strike in U.S. history, the key issues at stake are staffing levels, working conditions, and fair compensation. The outcome of this strike will not only impact Kaiser Permanente but also shed light on the broader challenges facing the healthcare industry and labor movements in the United States. Negotiations between the unions and Kaiser Permanente are ongoing as the strike continues for three days, affecting healthcare services in multiple states.