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Healthcare workers with Kaiser Permanente rally for new contract

Healthcare workers marched on Kaiser Permanente’s main medical facility in Los Angeles on Monday to protest what they describe as bad-faith bargaining and unsafe labor practices from the healthcare giant’s management.

The protest is part of an ongoing dispute between the Oakland-based HMO and a coalition of unions representing roughly 40% of its workforce.

The Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, which represents more than 85,000 healthcare workers in seven states and the District of Columbia, is negotiating its first contract renewal since 2019.

Workers say the pandemic decimated staffing to a degree that endangers patient and staff safety. They are calling for an increase in hiring, as well as a $25 per hour minimum wage for front-line health workers.

Late last month, local Kaiser unions began voting on whether to authorize a strike in the event that no new agreement is reached before the current contract expires Sept. 30. On Friday, the union representing more than 3,000 workers in Colorado became the first of the coalition’s dozen unions to do so.

Were a strike to proceed, union leaders have said, it would be the largest strike of healthcare workers in the nation’s history.

In a statement released in advance of Monday’s protest, Kaiser Permanente said the hospital chain was “committed to bargaining with our Coalition unions in good faith and in the spirit of partnership.” The statement also expressed confidence that the two sides would reach an agreement in advance of the Sept. 30 deadline.

Kaiser maintains that it weathered the pandemic-related staffing crises better than other healthcare organizations, with an average employee turnover rate of 8.5%.

The organization hired more than 29,000 new employees in 2022, the statement said, and was on track to exceed that number this year.

The tough conditions of the pandemic were one theme cited by the marchers.

“We’re fighting for fair wages. We want to be treated like the heroes they said we were during the pandemic,” said Christina McDermott, a surgical technician at Kaiser’s Alton/Sand Canyon facility in Irvine.

McDermott said she used the same set of personal protective equipment for a month straight during the pandemic, and often slept in her car or a tent to avoid bringing the virus into her home.

Now, she said “we’re at the point where if we don’t work overtime, we can’t pay our bills.”

The march is a fitting cap on a summer of labor unrest in Los Angeles, where more than 100,000 workers in fields ranging from film and television to hotel staffing have walked off the job and taken to the picket line following failed contract negotiations.

Even in a restive year, the healthcare dispute stands out. The Kaiser contract talks are the largest single-employer labor negotiations going on in the U.S. right now, according to the coalition.

While specifics differ in the various disputes, shared frustration over rising costs has forged alliances across unions.

“There’s a perception that we have little in common, but we’re both fighting for our future,” playwright Sam Chanse told The Times recently as she walked a picket line alongside hotel workers.

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