Kaiser workers to vote on strike authorization in Southern California

A union of 24,000 Kaiser Permanente nurses and other workers who say they’re understaffed and facing a revamped pay system that would fuel more shortages announced their bargaining team will vote next month to authorize a strike if needed.

The Southern California nurses, pharmacists, rehab therapists, social workers, physician assistants, speech therapists, midwives and optometrists are represented by United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals (UNAC/UHCP) and are currently in labor negotiations with the healthcare provider.

Member votes will be taken Oct. 1-10. Union officials say their 24-year partnership with Kaiser is “on life support,” a situation that could impact patient care.

The current negotiations for a national contract between Kaiser and UNAC/UHCP, along with twenty other unions in the Alliance of Health Care Unions, cover more than 50,000 workers across hundreds of job classifications in nearly every geographic area Kaiser serves.

“We can no longer sit back and watch the employer dismantle the partnership that’s been in place since 1997,” union President Denise Duncan, a nurse and chief negotiator on the union’s bargaining team, said in a statement.

The union said Kaiser has proposed 1% raises to nurses and others with significantly reduced pay for new hires.

“They are proposing a two-tiered wage scale, which means new nurses coming in won’t make nearly as much,” said Belinda Redding, a registered nurse at Kaiser’s Woodland Hills facility. “Can you imagine doing the same work as someone else in your department but making significantly less money?”

Redding said that would reduce morale and exacerbate Kaiser’s already chronic staffing shortages. New nurses wouldn’t hang around long, she said, and others would be dissuaded from applying for nursing jobs with Kaiser because of the reduced pay.

Kaiser nurses currently average $40 an hour and up, she said.

In a statement issued Monday, Kaiser said the union has mischaracterized the issue.

“Our employees represented by Alliance unions earn around 26% above the average market wage, and in some places it’s 38% above market levels,” the healthcare company said. “On Aug. 25, we offered a proposal that includes wage increases for all current employees and no changes to the current retirement plan. It also guarantees no wage cuts for current employees.”

Kaiser said it’s proposing a “market-based compensation structure” for workers hired in 2023 and beyond that will allow them to be paid above market wages on average. That will allow Kaiser to continue attracting and retaining top talent, the statement said.

Union officials say overworked nurses are already facing record levels of exhaustion, depression, PTSD and burnout.

Hospitals and nursing homes around the nation are bracing for increased staff shortages as state deadlines arrive for healthcare workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Ultimatums are taking effect this week in such states as California, New York, Rhode Island and Connecticut, prompting fears that some employees will quit or let themselves be fired or suspended rather than get the vaccine.

Kaiser said it has provided nearly $600 million in employee assistance to ensure that frontline employees have had access to alternate housing, special childcare grants and additional paid leave for COVID-19 illness and exposure.

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