Some 75,000 health care workers at Kaiser Permanente near a nationwide walkout
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
With autoworkers expected to expand their strike, we might be on the verge of another.
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
This one would involve tens of thousands of health care workers at Kaiser Permanente. There's one more round of in-person bargaining starting today, and it's the last chance to avoid a strike before their contract expires tomorrow.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Danielle Kaye is following the talks. So give us a sense of the scale of the potential strike. How big would this one be?
DANIELLE KAYE, BYLINE: Yeah. So if a strike does happen, it would involve more than 75,000 health care workers walking off the job for three days next week, starting on Wednesday. And these workers are represented by 12 local unions from coast to coast that are part of a coalition that's bargaining with Kaiser. And they have all sorts of jobs at Kaiser's hospitals and clinics from California to Washington, D.C. They're nurses, pharmacists, lab technicians, optometrists, just to name a few. And Kaiser is one of the biggest nonprofit health care providers in the country. It serves almost 13 million patients. So this strike would affect lots of different types of patient care.
MARTÍNEZ: OK. So why are we here on the verge of a strike?
KAYE: Well, the main concern here is understaffing. There was already a staffing shortage at Kaiser before the COVID pandemic hit the U.S. in 2020. But the pandemic made the problem that much worse. There's been an exodus of health care workers throughout the industry, not just at Kaiser. Remember, health care workers were on the front lines, risking their health every day during the pandemic. And on top of that, Kaiser has seen a surge in patient demand as people start to come back for routine care they delayed because of COVID. So the unions, like others currently on strike, are fighting for better benefits and higher pay - a 25% pay raise over the length of the contract. And the unions think better pay and benefits would help keep and draw in more people to Kaiser. And all of that, they say, would help fix the staff shortages. Here's Caroline Lucas, executive director of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions.
CAROLINE LUCAS: They work 40, 50, 60 hours a week at a job that we all know as a society that we need to have filled, and they can't pay their bills at the end of the week.
KAYE: And I should note here that Kaiser tells us it's close to meeting its goal of hiring 10,000 more people to fill union roles by the end of the year. But Lucas says so many workers are leaving the organization that hiring just isn't keeping up with those losses.
MARTÍNEZ: What are you hearing from those workers who might be gearing up to go on the strike?
KAYE: Well, workers I've talked to say they're willing to walk off the job because of how bad the staffing crisis has gotten. Brooke El-Amin has been working at Kaiser in the Washington, D.C. area for 21 years. She was an outpatient pharmacist at the start of the pandemic, and she says that's when understaffing started to really take a toll on her mental health.
BROOKE EL-AMIN: I don't want to strike, but I feel like Kaiser, you know, is already letting down our patients. They're already letting down the employees.
KAYE: And Kaiser is asking employees to reject calls to go on strike to avoid harm to patients. But workers say patient care is already suffering from the staff shortages. And the whole point of the strike would be to try to change that.
MARTÍNEZ: So speaking of patients, what should Kaiser patients expect next week if a strike does happen?
KAYE: So labor groups in the health care industry are required to give 10 days' notice before a strike. The Kaiser unions have already done that, so Kaiser does have time to prepare. Kaiser told me it has plans in place to keep providing care in the event of a strike, but patients can still expect some delays, probably more than usual, in routine appointments next week if the strike does happen.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Danielle Kaye. Thanks a lot.
KAYE: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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