Kaiser Permanente union members 'overwhelmingly' vote to authorize strike over contract negotiations

The side of a building that reads "Kaiser Permanente"
Nearly 21,000 of the nonprofit's nurses and workers based in Southern California could walk off the job, according to their union. The dispute centers around contractual pay increases they say are insufficient and will hamper recruitment during the next few years. (Sundry Photography/Shutterstock)

Members of a union representing nearly 21,000 Kaiser Permanente nurses and other healthcare workers have 'overwhelmingly' voted to move forward with a strike nearly two weeks after the expiration of their union contract.

The United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals (UNAC/UHCP) said Monday that 96% of its 18,209 participating members voted in favor of authorizing the strike across numerous hospitals, clinics and other Kaiser Permanente facilities in Southern California.  

“We’re concerned about the future of nursing and how we recruit and retain nurses and other health care workers who will serve our communities for years to come,” Denise Duncan, president of UNAC/UHCP, said in an email statement. “We can no longer sit back and watch the employer continue to dismantle the progress we made in quality patient care and health plan membership growth.”

The strike vote was held online from Oct. 1 to Oct. 10 and saw 86% member turnout, according to the union.

UNAC/UHCP is required by law to provide 10 days’ notice to Kaiser Permanente before the strike and work stoppages may begin. The affirmative member vote gives union negotiators the option to begin that process.

"Our priority is to continue to provide our members with high-quality, safe care," a representative of Kaiser Permanente said in a statement. "In the event of any kind of work stoppage, our facilities will be staffed by our physicians along with trained and experienced managers and contingency staff."

RELATED: Kaiser Permanente posts $3B in profits in Q2 as membership in health plan increases

The most recent round of contract negotiations began in April, according to UNAC/UHCP, and have largely revolved around pay increases and a compensation structure for those hired in 2023 and beyond.

The California-based provider’s most recent contract proposal included a 1% raise for nurses and other healthcare workers as well as a new employee payment plan. UNAC/UHCP has said that these terms are insufficient and “certain to make staffing shortages worse” as prospective hires eye sign-on bonuses and incentives offered across the market.

“At their heart, Kaiser Permanente’s proposals attack the fundamental principle of fairness on the job: equal pay for equal work,” Joe Guzynski, executive director of UNAC/UHCP and a chief negotiator on the union’s bargaining team, said in a September statement. “How are you going to recruit nurses if you do that? How are you going to protect patient care if you don’t invest in those who provide it?”

Kaiser Permanente Senior Vice President of Human Resources Arlene Peasnall responded at the time by highlighting the nearly $600 million it had spent in employee assistance since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. She also said that AHCU-represented employees are already earning 26% above average market wage.

“On August 25, we offered a proposal that includes wage increases for all current employees and no changes to the current retirement plan,” she said. “It also guarantees no wage cuts for current employees. These increases are on top of the already market-leading pay and benefits our employees receive, as confirmed by independent wage surveys and the government’s own data compiled by [the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services].”

RELATED: Will bonuses and benefits be enough to tackle healthcare's workforce shortages?

Kaiser Permanente reported $2.2 billion in operating income during 2020 and has seen its numbers rise during the first half of 2021. UNAC/UHCP’s strike messaging has also called attention to the nonprofit’s $44.5 billion in cash reserves.

UNAC/UHCP is one of 21 bargaining groups in the Alliance of Health Care Unions (AHCU) negotiating national contracts with the California-based integrated care provider.

AHCU represents roughly 52,000 Kaiser Permanente workers and serves 12 million patients across 39 hospitals and more than 700 medical office buildings, according to the union.

Among these individual groups is the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, which is also undergoing a strike authorization vote among its 3,400 members

The parties within AHCU have participated in a labor management partnership for the last 24 years that UNAC/UHCP warned in September is now “on life support.”

UNAC/UHCP leaders put a formal stop (PDF) on participation in partnership activities, such as workplace safety committees and labor-management partnership councils, after the contract negotiations stalled last month.