An 85,000-strong body of unionized healthcare workers is turning up the pressure on Kaiser Permanente as both sides hash out the terms of a new labor contract.
This week, the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions said its members will be picketing 50 Kaiser Permanente facilities across California, Washington, Oregon and Colorado.
The demonstrations—which do not involve union members walking off the job—are scheduled to run later this month, between July 24 and July 29. The group said that “tens of thousands” of its union members are set to participate and declined a request to provide a more specific count.
The coalition, which counts 12 individual unions among its membership, last negotiated a contract with the large integrated nonprofit in 2019. That deal involved a $130 million commitment by Kaiser to fund a workforce development program, raises ranging from 2% to 3% per year and a ban on subcontracting.
With the new round of negotiations, which follows years of COVID-19 stressors on the healthcare workforce, the coalition said it wants Kaiser to address what it describes as unsafe staffing levels across hospitals and clinics.
“We’re feeling incredibly undervalued by Kaiser,” Lenetra Stevenson, a union patient care technician at Kaiser Permanente in Fremont, California, said in a release from the coalition. “We’re short-staffed, and every shift we have to do more because there aren’t enough of us. Kaiser called us ‘heroes’ during the worst of the pandemic, and now they’re not making the investments necessary to provide safe staffing.”
In a statement, Kaiser said it is "confident" that it will reach a contract agreement "that strengthens our position as a best place to work and ensures that the high-quality care our members expect from us remains affordable and easy to acces."
Kaiser said that its workforce and employee assistance investments have helped fend off the worst of the pandemic labor crunch. Its 8.8% company-wide employee turnover rate may have "crept up a bit during the height of the pandemic," but it remains well below the 21.4% industry average reported in a 2022 PwC Saratoga survey, the system said.
"Given where we are in the bargaining process, it is clear that the picketing announced by the coalition on July 13 is not about drawing attention to new issues, but rather an attempt to create some kind of bargaining leverage," the system said.
In a June 23 bargaining update published online, the coalition proposed contract terms that would include 10,000 new hires by the end of 2023 (which Kaiser said it has agreed to), more training and internal placement commitments, worker performance incentive payouts and broad commitments reaffirming and bolstering the parties’ Labor Management Partnership.
Proposals surrounding economic issues like wages would “be discussed in future sessions,” the group wrote. However, the coalition didn’t wait to target Kaiser Permanente’s war chest.
Statements and releases from the group highlighted more than $21 billion in profit reported by Kaiser Permanente over the last five years, about four dozen executives across the system whose compensation exceeds $1 million annually and the organization’s headline-grabbing plan to purchase Geisinger Health for $5 billion (plus other commitments).
“Kaiser pays their executives huge salaries while some of our co-workers are living in their cars,” Stevenson said. “We’re simply calling on Kaiser to put patient care over profits and make meaningful investments in its workforce to solve the staffing shortage.”
This past fiscal year has been the exception to Kaiser’s upward earnings. Despite logging $95.4 billion in total operating revenues, the system posted a $1.3 billion operating loss and a net loss of nearly $4.5 billion. The former dip was attributed, in part, to “a highly competitive labor market,” while the latter was fueled by $3.2 billion of net investment losses.
On compensation, the system said that it offers "market-competitive pay and outstanding benefits" and that the "real issue in bargaining is whether to provide one identical, national wage increase for every coalition-represented employee, or provide appropriate, market-based wage increases.
"In bargaining this week, we have discussed with the Coalition the fact that in some markets we are paying 28% above the market average wage rates," the system said.
The coalition’s negotiations represent the third largest set of union negotiations scheduled for this year across the country and the economy, the group said. They come about two years after another major collection of 21 Kaiser Permanente unions, the Alliance of Health Care Unions, renewed their contract just days before a 32,000-person strike.
Editor's note: This story was updated on July 17 with statements from Kaiser Permanente on the picketing and contract negotiations.