A swath of Kaiser Permanente workers in California has voted overwhelmingly to approve a strike that could draw in more than 80,000 employees of the healthcare giant across the nation, according to the coalition of unions representing them.
The employees — who include most staff aside from doctors, mental health workers or certain nurses — have been working under an expired national contract since September, though their local contracts are still current.
The Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West — which is the largest union in a coalition covered by the national contract — voted in support of the strike, according to the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions. Two-thirds of the union’s members voted, and 98% of those voted yes, it said.
The vote does not mean a strike will take place; rather, it gives union leaders the ability to call one whenever they want, which provides extra leverage in negotiations. Leaders have floated early October as a possible time for a strike.
Workers in other unions represented by the coalition, including those in five other states and Washington, D.C., as well as four in California, are scheduled to vote in the coming weeks.
The coalition says the nonprofit healthcare giant’s focus on high margins in recent years has led to unfair labor practices and refusals to bargain in good faith. “Workers are rejecting what Kaiser has become,” said Sean Wherley, a spokesperson for the coalition. “It has moved away from its commitments to patients and staffing and is instead emphasizing huge profits and executive salaries.”
Kaiser pushed back against that idea. “Our first priority is always continuity of care for our patients and members,” and Kaiser is offering wages and benefits that exceed market rates, John Nelson, the company’s vice president of communications, said in an emailed statement.
Oakland-based Kaiser is one of the nation’s largest not-for-profit health plans; it has 12.3 million members, including 4.6 million in Southern California. The health maintenance organization, or HMO, generated nearly $80 billion of revenue and $2.5 billion of net income last year, according to its annual report.
An analysis by the coalition found that Kaiser chief executive’s annual salary had increased from $6 million in 2015 to $16 million in 2017. It also found that Kaiser had 36 executives making over $1 million a year, while the Blue Cross Blue Shield Assn. and the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital each has only three executives compensated at that level. A Kaiser representative did not dispute those figures but said that the organization pays what it must in order to attract and retain the leaders it needs and that Kaiser’s size and complexity make it not comparable to other healthcare nonprofits.
Nelson called the strike authorization a divisive bargaining tactic “designed to divide employees and mischaracterize Kaiser Permanente’s position.”
The leadership of the union that passed the strike vote “is more interested in a power play to position themselves vis a vis other Kaiser Permanente unions — rather than focusing on what is best for their membership,” Nelson said in the statement. “At a time when we are working hard to keep our care affordable, the Coalition’s demands are not fair to our members and the communities we serve. Coalition-represented employees are already compensated 23% above market rates — we pay well and we have markets where our wage rates are challenging our ability to be affordable.”
The workers represented by the coalition include licensed vocational nurses; technicians who work in radiology, X-rays, pharmaceuticals and other fields; and employees involved with food services and environmental services such as laundry service and room cleaning.
Eric Jines, an X-ray technician at Kaiser Los Angeles Medical Center in Hollywood and member of the union bargaining committee, said he and other workers are protesting what they perceive as a new profit-centric culture among the company’s leaders.
Jines said that since going on strike would mean forgoing pay, he and some other workers have been saving up money since last year. But many of his colleagues couldn’t do that, he said. And if a strike is called, he said, some workers will be able to find ways to scare up some income, while others will struggle. “There’s options for people to drive for Uber or Lyft, or try to pick up other work on the side, but for someone with three or four kids it’s a lot harder.”
Separately, Kaiser mental health workers — represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which is not part of the coalition — are in their own contract dispute with the healthcare giant. In July, the union’s members in California voted to reject Kaiser’s latest offer.
“Kaiser has never been more stable economically, but they continue to treat mental health as second-class,” said Sal Rosselli, president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers.
Criticism that Kaiser does not provide mental health care on a timely basis goes back years, and the organization was fined in 2013 for “serious deficiencies in providing access to mental health services.” Kaiser said in June that it had hired hundreds of therapists since 2015 and was seeking to hire more, and that it has embarked on a project to expand its mental health facilities.
Leaders at the National Union of Healthcare Workers are putting together a response to Kaiser’s proposal, with further talks scheduled for Friday, Rosselli said. If the coalition strikes in October, his union may coordinate a strike at the same time, he said.