More than 75,000 walk off job in largest U.S. health care strike ever
More than 75,000 unionized employees of Kaiser Permanente, one of the nation's biggest not-for-profit health care organizations, went on strike early Wednesday morning. It is the largest health care worker strike in U.S. history.
The strikers, who account for 40% of Kaiser’s total staff, struck Kaiser facilities in California, Colorado, Washington, Virginia, Oregon, and Washington, D.C. They represent health care roles ranging from nurses to dietary workers, receptionists, optometrists, and pharmacists. The strikers are largely concentrated in West Coast states.
The strike is temporary, with employees who walked out scheduled to return to work on October 7. Nevertheless, the possibility of a "longer, stronger" strike looms in November if the two sides don’t come to a mutually satisfactory agreement, according to SEIU-UHW, the largest union in the coalition representing the strikers.
Though doctors and most registered nurses are not striking, Kaiser says some patient care may be affected by the work stoppage. In a statement, Kaiser said patients should expect that some non-emergency and elective services will be rescheduled during the work stoppage “out of an abundance of caution.”
“Our hospitals and emergency departments will remain open. Our facilities will continue to be staffed by our physicians, trained and experienced managers, and staff, and in some cases we will augment with contingent workers,” a Kaiser Permanente spokesperson said.
The strikers’ primary grievances concern staffing shortages that they say have left them feeling overworked and burnt out. Kaiser has responded by pledging to expedite hiring, aiming to recruit 10,000 new employees for union-represented positions by the end of 2023.
Other demands include higher pay, protections against outsourcing, and early notification for remote workers returning to in-person work.
While the parties say they have made some progress, they remain far apart regarding employee salary increases. Kaiser has offered location-specific wage increases, with a maximum of 4% for each of the four years of the new contract, according to SEIU-UHW. But the coalition rejected that offer, saying it fails to keep up with the cost of living. Instead it is asking for an across-the-board 6.5% raise in the first two years of the contract and a 5.75% increase in the next two years.
In a statement to CNN Renee Saldana, a spokesperson for SEIU-UHW, said, "Workers are really being squeezed right now. They went through the worst global health crisis in a generation and then they come out and they're worried about paying rent, they're worried about losing their house, they're worried about living in their cars."
In response, a spokesperson for Kaiser stated, “We lead total compensation in every market where we operate, and our proposals in bargaining would ensure we keep that position.”
The Kaiser strike is but the latest in a surge of labor actions in a variety of industries around the country. The United Auto Workers is striking the three major domestic auto manufacturers. SAG-AFTRA, the union representing writers, actors and other entertainment industry employees has struck against the Hollywood studios, while the Writers Guild of America has tentatively settled its 148-day strike.
The health care industry has been particularly affected by rising strike activity. Of the 42 work stoppages involving 1,000 or more strikers from the start of 2022 through August of this year, about one-third have been in health care, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. n January, more than 7,000 nurses at two major New York City hospital systems went on strike, arguing that staffing shortages have led to burnout.
In a statement, Kaiser Permanente acknowledged that it’s been affected by the staffing shortages that have led to burnout among health care workers.
“Every health care provider in the nation has been facing staffing shortages and fighting burnout. During the Great Resignation in 2021-22, more than 5 million people left their health care jobs across the country,” the company said. “Up to two-thirds of health care staff are saying they are burnt out and more than one in five are quitting. Kaiser Permanente is not immune from these challenges.”