LOS ANGELES — Tens of thousands of Kaiser Permanente workers took to picket lines in multiple states on Wednesday, starting a massive strike that the company warned could cause delays at its hospitals and clinics that serve nearly 13 million Americans.
The Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, representing about 85,000 of the health system’s employees nationally, approved a strike for three days in California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, and for one day in Virginia and Washington, D.C. Some 75,000 people were expected to participate in the pickets.
“They’re not listening to the frontline health care workers,” said Mikki Fletchall, a licensed vocational nurse based in a Kaiser medical office in Camarillo, Calif. “We’re striking because of our patients.”
The nonprofit company said its 39 hospitals, including emergency rooms, will remain open. Doctors are not participating, and Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser said it was bringing in thousands of temporary workers to fill the gaps. Still, appointments and non-urgent procedures could be pushed back.
Early Wednesday, workers at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center cheered as the strike deadline arrived. The strikers include licensed vocational nurses, home health aides and ultrasound sonographers, as well as technicians in the radiology, X-ray, surgical, pharmacy and emergency departments.
Brittany Everidge, a ward clerk transcriber in the medical center’s maternal child health department, was among those on the picket line. She said because of staffing shortages, pregnant people in active labor can be stuck waiting for hours to be checked in. Other times, too few transcribers can lead to delays in creating and updating charts for new babies.
“We don’t ever want to be in a situation where the nurses have to do our job,” she said.
Patients like Carlos Herrera, 65, walked by picketers in Los Angeles.
Herrera, who was there for a kidney test, said there were few people inside urgent care and his 10:40 a.m. appointment was on time. He said he supports the strikers because they need more people to combat staffing shortages to treat patients like him.
The strike comes in a year when there have been work stoppages within multiple industries, including, transportation, entertainment and hospitality.
At least 453,000 workers have participated in 312 strikes in the U.S. this year, according to Johnnie Kallas, a Ph.D. student and the project director of Cornell University’s Labor Action Tracker. That figure includes Kaiser workers.
The health care industry alone has been hit by several strikes this year as it confronts burnout from heavy workloads — problems that were exacerbated greatly by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Union members say understaffing is boosting the hospital system’s profits but hurting patients, and executives have been bargaining in bad faith during negotiations.
Kaiser executive Michelle Gaskill-Hames said the company’s practices, compensation and retention are better than its competitors.
“Our focus, for the dollars that we bring in, are to keep them invested in value-based care,” said Gaskill-Hames, president of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Hospitals of Southern California and Hawaii.
She added that Kaiser only faces 7% turnover compared to the industry standard of 21%, despite the effects of the pandemic.
“I think coming out of the pandemic, health care workers have been completely burned out,” she said. “The trauma that was felt caring for so many COVID patients, and patients that died, was just difficult.”
The workers’ last contract was negotiated in 2019, before the pandemic.
Hospitals generally have struggled in recent years with high labor costs, staffing shortages and rising levels of uncompensated care, according to Rick Gundling, a senior vice president with the Healthcare Financial Management Association, a nonprofit that works with health care finance executives.
Most of their revenue is fixed, coming from government-funded programs like Medicare and Medicaid, Gundling noted. He said that means revenue growth is “only possible by increasing volumes, which is difficult even under the best of circumstances.”
Meanwhile, workers calling for higher wages, better working conditions and job security, especially since the end of the pandemic, have been increasingly willing to walk out on the job as employers face a greater need for workers.
The California legislature has sent Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom a bill that would increase the minimum wage for the state’s 455,000 health care workers to $25 per hour over the next decade. The governor has until Oct. 14 to decide whether to sign or veto it.