Some 3,800 union healthcare workers in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., are threatening to go on strike at the end of this month if the leadership at Kaiser Permanente and the union cannot agree to a new contract addressing staffing shortages and low pay for workers.
According to a Monday statement from OPEIU Local 2, which represents 8,000 workers in the region, about 98% of health care workers from the union voted to authorize a strike to protest “unfair labor practices” if no agreement is reached by Sept. 30.
The health care workers represented by OPEIU Local 2 union include optometrists, pharmacists, nurses and certified nursing assistants. The union includes a variety of technicians involved in health care too, including surgical, imaging and emergency department technicians.
The OPEIU Local 2 union has voted to join thousands of other Kaiser Permanente workers planning to strike on Sept. 30 over contract negotiations, including health care workers in Colorado, California, Oregon and Southwest Washington. Maryland has about 30 Kaiser Permanente-affiliated centers across the state, according to the Kaiser Permanente website.
A primary concern is what the union called “unsafe” staffing shortages, which “can lead to dangerously long wait times and rushed in-person care.”
The group claims that if the strike takes place, it could be the “largest healthcare strike in U.S. history.”
The coalition of unions and Kaiser Permanente last negotiated contracts in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the United States. The pressures of the global health crisis “worsened working conditions and exacerbated a healthcare staffing crisis,” according to the Monday press release.
“Kaiser used to hold itself out as the best place to get care and the best place to work, but it is now failing at both. Kaiser can and must do better,” Linda Bridges, president of OPEIU Local 2, said in a written statement. “We are demanding Kaiser bargain in good faith, stop violating the law, and address the healthcare staffing crisis.”
The union argues that decisions from Kaiser Permanente executives have contributed to the staff issues, including cutting bonuses for frontline workers, insufficiently raising wages to match the rising cost of living and offering low wages for entry-level workers that are not competitive with fast food service or retail work.
In a written statement released on Monday, Kaiser Permanente said that the strike authorization vote was “a disappointing action.”
Kaiser Permanente noted the parties involved have two more bargaining sessions scheduled this week, before the Sept. 30 deadline.
“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 Kaiser statement said.
Kaiser argued that the wage grievances by OPEIU Local 2 are misleading, claiming that current proposals would set a $21 an hour minimum wage, when the union is asking for $26 an hour. The nonprofit health organization also argues that they’ve put millions into continued education and training opportunities for employees to help deal with staffing concerns.
“We take any threat to disrupt care for our members seriously and have comprehensive plans to ensure continued access to needed health care services, should a strike occur later this year,” according to the written statement.
The union countered that Kaiser Permanente has made $3 billion in the first six months of 2023, based on a recent financial report from the company.
“Workers say that Kaiser is committing unfair labor practices and also that under-staffing is boosting Kaiser’s profits but hurting patients,” according to a union statement. “In a recent survey of 33,000 employees, 2/3 of workers said they’d seen care delayed or denied due to short staffing.”