Negotiations to resume between Kaiser, health care workers

Contract negotiations are expected to resume Thursday between Kaiser Permanente and a coalition of unions representing thousands of its workers who staged a three-day strike last week, and who could walk out again next month if an agreement isn’t reached.

Roughly 75,000 workers represented by the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions walked off the job from Wednesday through Friday last week in what the union billed as the largest health care strike of its kind in U.S. history. Workers walked picket lines across California and in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Kaiser officials said contract talks were set to resume Thursday, marking the first negotiations since the strike began. The sides held multiple negotiating sessions in the days leading up to the strike, including a marathon session that continued into the day Wednesday, even as workers began picketing.

Earlier this week, union officials said they notified Kaiser of plans to conduct a longer, seven-day strike beginning Nov. 1 if a contract agreement isn’t reached by then. The workers’ contract expired Sept. 30.

The union coalition has been pushing for higher wages commensurate with inflation, increased staffing and working conditions. The unions have also repeatedly accused Kaiser of negotiating in bad-faith, an allegation Kaiser has denied.

“At issue, health care workers say, are a series of unfair labor practices related to bargaining in bad faith, along with simmering staff concerns related to unsafe staffing levels that can lead to dangerously long wait times, mistaken diagnosis, and neglect,” according to an earlier union statement.

“After years of the COVID pandemic and chronic understaffing, Kaiser healthcare workers are calling on management to provide safe staffing levels.”

The union has also accused Kaiser of cutting performance bonuses for employees, failing to protect employees against subcontracting and offering wages that fail to keep pace with inflation — all issues that Kaiser has refuted.

“Frontline health care workers are awaiting a meaningful response from Kaiser executives regarding some of our key priorities including safe staffing, outsourcing protections for incumbent healthcare workers, and fair wages to reduce turnover,” Caroline Lucas of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions said in a statement.

Kaiser officials said the most recent bargaining sessions did result in a “number of tentative agreements,” and they insisted the health care system’s latest offers address the union’s demands. Kaiser officials said the company is offering:

— “across-the-board” wage increases in all markets over four years;

— an improved Performance Sharing Plan with the potential for payouts of up to $3,750;

— minimum wages of $23 an hour in California and $21 an hour in other markets; and

— renewal of tuition assistance and training programs.

“We remain committed to reaching a new agreement that continues to provide our employees with market-leading wages, excellent benefits, generous retirement income plans, and valuable professional development opportunities,” according to Kaiser.

The company also affirmed its commitment to hiring, confirming that it has already reached a goal of hiring 10,000 new union-represented employees before the end of the year.

“In total over the past two years, Kaiser Permanente has hired more than 50,000 people to join our teams,” according to the company.

Last week, Kaiser officials issued a statement saying rising inflation has led to a “massive surge” in expenses, and has made it tough for the company to balance taking care of its employees with being affordable to patients.

“As noted in a recent report from the American Hospital Association, rising inflation has led to health care experiencing a `massive surge’ in expenses driven by drugs and supplies, equipment shortages, staffing costs and supply chain disruptions,” Kaiser officials said.

“At the same time, in the wake of the pandemic, demand for care has increased dramatically, as people come in for care that has been delayed. Kaiser Permanente is not immune to these inflationary pressures.”

Among the workers who were involved in the strike were licensed vocational nurses, emergency department technicians, radiology technicians, ultrasound sonographers, teleservice representatives, respiratory therapists, X- ray technicians, certified nursing assistants, dietary services, behavioral health workers, surgical technicians, pharmacy technicians, transporters, home health aides, phlebotomists and medical assistants, union officials said.

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