On Wednesday morning, employees of Kaiser Permanente, the largest nonprofit healthcare organization in the United States, initiated a strike. This labor action, prompted by unresolved disagreements over staffing levels between the company and labor representatives, is poised to witness over 75,000 union members walking out of hospitals and medical facilities within hours.
The Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions has characterized this work stoppage as the largest strike of healthcare workers in American history. The strike’s scope extends across Kaiser facilities in California, Colorado, Oregon, Virginia, the District of Columbia, and Washington state.
The strike commenced at 6 a.m. Eastern Time in Washington, D.C., and Virginia, with workers in the remaining states scheduled to join at 6 a.m. local time. The striking workforce encompasses various roles, including vocational nurses, emergency department technicians, radiology technicians, X-ray technicians, respiratory therapists, medical assistants, pharmacists, and numerous other positions.
Kaiser Permanente serves nearly 13 million patients and operates 39 hospitals and more than 600 medical offices across eight states and the District of Columbia. The organization has articulated contingency plans to ensure continued patient care during the strike.
This strike at Kaiser Permanente is the latest in a series of labor actions this year, reflecting mounting tensions over compensation, benefits, and staffing amidst inflation and a workforce shortage. Notably, over 25,000 members of the United Auto Workers are currently on strike against Ford Motor, General Motors, and Stellantis. Additionally, Hollywood writers recently concluded a 150-day walkout after securing improved pay and benefits.
The unions representing Kaiser employees are demanding substantial long-term investments to address the staffing shortage, along with improved compensation and benefits. Caroline Lucas, the executive director of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, highlighted the staffing crisis, citing unsafe working conditions and deteriorating patient care as consequences. She emphasized the burnout and high turnover among frontline healthcare workers, emphasizing the unsustainability of the current situation.
Historically, healthcare institutions have struggled to retain staff due to low pay and the high stress associated with the industry, particularly when the job market is robust, according to Patricia Pittman, an expert at the Milken Institute School of Public Health. The toll of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this staffing shortage, with many healthcare workers leaving their roles due to concerns about inadequate protection from the virus and hostility from some community members.
Kaiser Permanente has acknowledged the challenges faced by healthcare workers, noting that over 5 million people have left their healthcare jobs, and burnout levels are at a record high. The organization has expressed its commitment to achieving a fair and equitable agreement.
However, the union coalition contends that management has not adequately addressed concerns regarding unsafe staffing levels, characterizing Kaiser executives’ bargaining approach as “bad faith.” This three-day strike is a protest against what the coalition perceives as the company’s lack of responsiveness to worker concerns.
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Kaiser Permanente reported a profit of $2 billion in the second quarter, a notable improvement from the previous year’s loss of $1.2 billion, generating $25 billion in revenue during the same period.