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Kaiser Permanente workers picket as contract talks heat up

Similar to other employees in healthcare, picketing workers want better staffing and working conditions
Kaiser Permanente workers represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 49 hold a picket outside Westside Medical Center in Hillsboro on July 24, 2023 to pressure the managed care consortium on contract negotiations. | JAKE THOMAS/THE LUND REPORT
July 24, 2023

Workers picketed outside Kaiser Permanente’s Westside Medical Center in Hillsboro Monday as they seek to pressure the healthcare consortium to improve staffing, wages and working conditions.

Kaiser Permanente is negotiating a new contract with a coalition of a dozen unions representing more than 85,000 employees in seven states and the District of Columbia. That includes 4,800 dental assistants, lab techs, housekeepers, phlebotomists, schedulers and others in Oregon and southwest Washington who are represented by Service Employees International Union Local 49. 

The picket takes place against a backdrop of increasingly emboldened unions in the Pacific Northwest and nationally seeking to leverage the tight labor market and inflation for higher worker pay. The Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Union argues Kaiser is sitting on a pile of cash it should use to increase wages and boost staffing to provide better care for the managed care consortium’s growing number of patients.

“Our members at Kaiser Permanente have worked through the pandemic and been on the frontline, and they’ve shown incredible flexibility and worked a ton of hours,” Meg Niemi, SEIU Local 49 president, told The Lund Report. “But we’re getting to this point where the tank is empty, and folks are exhausted and looking for some recognition or relief.”

She called the staffing shortages and the record inflation facing the union’s  working-class members “unprecedented.” 

Kaiser responded to the picket with a statement saying that while “every health care provider in the nation is facing staffing shortages and fighting burnout” it was ramping up hiring. 

The health system has over half a million members in Oregon and southwest Washington who are served by two hospitals and 36 medical offices. Kaiser has touted its historically friendly relationship to organized labor and sat on the sidelines, at least publicly, during sometimes contentious negotiations over Oregon’s landmark hospital staffing bill.  

Kaiser’s contract with the unions expires at the end of September. While it’s not uncommon for unionized employees to work without a contract, Niemi said Kaiser shouldn’t wait to address economic challenges facing her members. 

If the contract does expire, Niemi said the unions could vote to authorize a strike, as they did in 2019. The Oregon Nurses Association in June held a five-day strike to pressure Providence Health & Services on contract negotiations. Niemi said the goal is not to strike. But, she added, “We just feel incredible urgency.”

Picket lines begin

Roughly 60 workers wearing purple Service Employees International Union T-shirts and a handful of supporters gathered outside the Westside Medical Center Monday. They held signs with slogans that read “cutting corners in health care is a sick idea,” “protect us, respect us, staff us, pay us” and others. 

“If we don’t get no contract…” an organizer chanted over a loudspeaker. “You don’t get no peace!” picketers responded.

Megan Mayes, a patient access representative, was one of those workers. She told The Lund Report that she worked for 17 years registering emergency department patients, checking in mothers about to give birth and performing other clerical duties. 

Mays, 36, said she stuck around because of Kaiser’s unique labor management partnership, which gives workers a say over operations, and the benefits. She said the birth of one of her children led to a bill for only $5. 

But the mother of three said she’s seen the rising costs of housing, fuel and other necessities eat away at her and her husband’s paychecks. 

Mayes said that earlier in her career, job-seekers lined up for positions at Kaiser. But now Kaiser is struggling to hire enough workers, she said. When Kaiser opened its Hillsboro hospital it had more than 100 housekeeping staff, she said, but that number has dropped to 38. 

“There is still the same building to cover,” she said. “Nothing has changed. The expectations aren’t less.”

Fewer cleaning staff means bigger risks around infections and safety, she said. Mayes also said she’s seen patients wait hours in the lobby after being rushed in for an operation because of the lack of housekeepers. She said the shortage of cafeteria workers has meant patients haven’t been able to get hot food. 

Kaiser issued  a statement Monday indicating that while management was disappointed by the picket, the health care consortium is seeking a collaborative approach with unionized employees to “provide market-competitive pay and outstanding benefits while addressing the significant challenges that Kaiser Permanente and all health care organizations face today on the heels of the global pandemic and in today’s economy.”

“We are committed to reaching an agreement that addresses our current challenges, ensures the high-quality care our members expect from Kaiser Permanente is affordable and easy to access, and recognizes the contributions of our represented employees with competitive wages and benefits in each of the markets we serve, as well as opportunities for career growth,” reads the statement. 

The statement pointed to how Kaiser and the coalition of unions agreed in April to hire 10,000 new workers while expediting the process to fill vacancies. Kaiser is already on track to hire 45% more workers represented by SEIU in 2023 than the previous year, according to the statement. 

But Niemi said that in order to add 10,000 workers Kaiser will need to increase wages and reduce the experience it requires for new hires. 

The coalition of unions plans to submit its proposal for wage increases at the next bargaining session in August and is already calling for a minimum wage of $25-an-hour at Kaiser. 

Kaiser reported that its membership grew by 120,000 to 12.7 million members by March 2023. It also reported a $1.2 billion net income for the first three months of 2023. The coalition of unions on its website criticized the generous pay of Kaiser executives after a negotiator for the health system said that workers are “overpaid” during a bargaining session. 

SEIU 49 is planning similar pickets on Wednesday at Kaiser Interstate Medical Office and Kaiser Sunnyside Medical Center on Friday. 

You can reach Jake Thomas at [email protected] or via Twitter @jakethomas2009.