Kaiser Permanente workers issue 10-day strike notice for largest walk-off in healthcare history

Updated Sept. 22

This morning member organizations of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions issued a 10-day unfair labor practice strike notice to the major nonprofit health system and insurer after the parties' final scheduled bargaining session failed to deliver an accord. 

Should no deal be struck in the interim, over 75,000 union workers across Kaiser Permanente's California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Virginia, and Washington D.C. facilities will walk off the job for three days, starting Oct. 4. 

The dispute over new contracts' pay and staffing terms threatens to go down as the largest healthcare strike in the country's history, the unions said. Authorization votes held by the individual unions have overwhelmingly landed in favor of the demonstrations, per results released over the past week. 

“Kaiser executives refuse to acknowledge how much patient care has deteriorated or how much the frontline healthcare workforce and patients are suffering because of the Kaiser short-staffing crisis,” Dave Regan, president of SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West, part of the Coalition, said in a release. “The patient care crisis cannot be solved unless Kaiser executives follow the law by bargaining with healthcare workers in good faith, and take dramatic action now to solve the crisis by investing in its workforce.” 

The Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions comprises over 85,000 of the nonprofit system’s workers in total, and has led demonstrations over the course of the summer and during the run-up to the strike authorization vote that are critical of Kaiser's leadership.

The health system's management has previously said that its goal "is to reach an agreement that ensures we can continue to provide market-competitive pay and outstanding benefits." It has pushed back on the unions' claims that its pay proposals are below the market value of other traditionally low-paying industries.

"We are confident we’ll reach an agreement before the national agreement expires on September 30 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 access," the system said in a statement given last week. 

Sept. 14

Tens of thousands of Kaiser Permanente’s workers have voted to authorize a labor strike should no contract deal be in place by Sept. 30, unions announced Thursday.

Following the summer’s picket demonstrations, the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, which represents over 85,000 of the nonprofit system’s workers, kicked off a strike authorization vote among its 12 individual unions in late August.

On Thursday, the largest of those unions, SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW), announced that its nearly 60,000 members voted for the strike by a margin of 98%.

Another 4,000 workers in Oregon and Southwest Washington with SEIU Local 49 announced their own 98% in favor vote shortly after. Both announcements follow last week’s 99% affirmatory results from the 3,000-plus Colorado contingent with SEIU Local 105.

Voting for the other member unions’ nearly 20,000 members is scheduled to conclude on Sept. 20, according to the coalition.

“Several coalition unions are still voting through the 20th, but three-fourths of the coalition voting to approve the strike sends a strong message about where the workers stand,” a representative of SEIU-UHW told Fierce Healthcare.

SEIU Local 49 President Meg Niemi said her group’s 4,000 represented healthcare workers “have joined our colleagues in overwhelmingly voting to authorize a strike because if Kaiser executives are going to continue to violate the law and put patient safety on the line, we must act.”

In a statement, Kaiser Permanente said there are two more bargaining sessions scheduled for next week. The organization stressed that the vote "does not reflect any breakdown in bargaining" but is "a disappointing action considering our progress at the bargaining table."

"Our priority is to reach an agreement that ensures we can continue to provide market-competitive pay and outstanding benefits," the system said. "We are confident we’ll reach an agreement before the national agreement expires on September 30 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 access."

The unions say they now comprise the largest single-employer labor negotiations currently playing out in the U.S.

Should the rest of the membership follow suit and no deal is reached, the resulting walk-off would become the largest healthcare strike in the history of the country, they said.

The coalition last negotiated a contract with Kaiser in 2019, a deal that 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. 

The new round comes after COVID-19 battered health systems and their workers alike. The unions said they want any potential contract to address short staffing and insufficient pay they say is prevalent across the organization and leading to worse quality of and access to care for patients.

SEIU-UHW’s vote approval announcement, for instance, said that Kaiser’s current contract proposals would “make the staffing crisis worse, not better.”

Those proposals, according to the union, include “starting pay for certain entry-level positions that is not even competitive with fast food and retail chains in the high cost urban centers Kaiser operates in” and “slashing performance bonuses for front-line workers while paying top dollar to managers and executives who do not directly interact with patients.”  

“Kaiser has failed to bargain in good faith with the caregivers who are doing everything they can to protect patient safety,” Dave Regan, president of SEIU-UHW, said in the announcement. “Nearly 60,000 frontline workers at Kaiser facilities [with SEIU-UHW] have overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike because we will simply not stand by as Kaiser violates the law and puts patients at risk.”

Kaiser disputed these and other claims in its responding statement. It said the slashed performance bonuses, for instance, were a minimum payment level "to protect our employees from receiving no payout" whereas the unions are "demanding the program just be turned into a guaranteed payout, regardless of performance." 

The system also said it has offered an enterprise-wide minimum wage of $21 per hour, but that the union is pushing for $25. 

The unions have been quick to highlight the Kaiser’s nearly $3.3 billion in six-month net income. Though the large nonprofit has claimed over $21 billion in profit over the past five years and has plans to expand, it logged a $1.3 billion operating loss and net loss of almost $4.5 billion in 2022 due to tough investments and “a highly competitive labor market.”

Should the strike come to pass, Kaiser said it has "comprehensive plans to ensure continued access to needed healthcare services."

Editor's note: This story has been updated with responding comments from Kaiser Permanente.