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Thousands of WA Kaiser Permanente workers move toward strike despite national deal

Kaiser Permanente workers pose for a photo.
SEIU Healthcare 1199NW
Kaiser Permanente workers pose for a photo.

Kaiser Permanente workers in Washington voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if they do not reach a new contract with the health care provider by Oct. 31, the union representing the employees announced on Friday.

If the strike happens, about 3,000 Kaiser Permanente workers at 36 locations will walk out from Nov. 1 to 8, the union said. About 99% of union members voted for the strike, according to Jane Hopkins, president of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW. The workers who would go on strike include nurses, social workers and medical assistants.

“Striking is absolutely the last resort, but an action we’re willing to take to protect Washington health care workers and patients,” Hopkins said.

Kaiser serves about 643,000 people in Washington. In a statement Friday to the Standard, the company said it “remains committed to reaching an agreement that is good for our employees, our members, and our organization, and we will continue to bargain in good faith.”

The Washington union’s announcement comes the same day a national coalition of unions, including SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, reached a tentative agreement with Kaiser Permanente after more than 75,000 workers nationwide, including some in southwest Washington, went on what union leaders said was the largest health care worker strike in recent U.S. history.

Kaiser emphasized during the national strike — which lasted three days, from Oct. 4 to 6 — that it was trying to minimize disruptions in care and that it would keep emergency facilities operating.

The new national agreement establishes minimum wages over three years that will reach $25 an hour in California and $23 an hour everywhere else, including in Washington. Wage increases will also total 21% over four years. But Hopkins said this broader deal does not cover all of the Washington union’s demands.

“Every state is different,” Hopkins said. “Even with the wages we got nationally, there is no way they’ll be able to recruit or retain workers without giving more raises to [Washington] workers.”

Hopkins said Kaiser Permanente health care workers’ wages are at least 20% lower than what’s offered at other Washington health care facilities, even with the current national agreement. Last year, contract negotiations at UW Medicine, Seattle Children’s Hospital and Providence Swedish ended with huge raises for health care workers.

“This is not just about the wages,” Hopkins said. “This is affecting patient care. When you don’t have enough people looking after the patients, it affects the community, it affects the patients.”

Washington’s Kaiser workers say higher wages are needed to address a staffing crisis. The nonprofit provider’s staffing problems drove the nationwide strike: about 11% of union positions were vacant in April, according to the national coalition of Kaiser unions. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened understaffing at health care facilities across the country. The union has also raised concerns about racial equity in hiring and workplace culture.

“I have never seen the kind of turnover, the lack of access to care, or the safety issues that we’re facing,” said Alanna Martin, an urgent care social worker who’s worked at Kaiser for 21 years. “This crisis is really unsafe for patients.”

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This story was originally published by Washington State Standard.