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Kaiser healthcare workers poised to strike over staff shortages if talks fail: 'I've never seen patient care get to this level'

By Levi Sumagaysay

A strike, which could begin as soon as Oct. 1, would include imaging techs, surgical techs, certified nursing assistants and licensed practical nurses

Henry Perez, a unit assistant in the intensive-care unit at the Kaiser Permanente in Modesto, Calif., recalls a patient once waiting so long for help using the restroom that she got up on her own, leading to her oxygen mask slipping off. When she pressed the call button for help, he heard her gasping for air, so he rushed to find a nurse.

"The nurse told me ... if I hadn't come in there, that lady would've been in trouble," he said in an interview with MarketWatch this week.

Perez is among an overwhelming share of 85,000 Kaiser employees across several states who have voted to authorize what could be the largest healthcare-worker strike in U.S. history, if the last scheduled negotiations this week between the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions and the healthcare organization fail to yield a new agreement.

The contract expires Sept. 30, and a strike could begin as soon as Oct. 1, according to a spokesperson for SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West. The possible strike would affect Kaiser employees in California, Colorado, Oregon, Hawaii, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, plus Washington, D.C. -- and up to 12 million Kaiser members.

The union coalition and the workers it represents are asking for higher wages, a $25 minimum wage across the board and more. But Perez and other Kaiser employees who spoke with MarketWatch zeroed in on the staffing shortage, which they say has prevented them from ensuring the standard of patient care and services for which they have been known.

'Imagine me being rushed to clean an operating room, and you're up next on the surgery table.'Rashaad Pritchett, an environmental-services worker at Kaiser Permanente in Richmond, Calif.

In response to the anecdotes described by workers interviewed by MarketWatch, a Kaiser spokesperson said Wednesday: "The staffing challenges mentioned by the Coalition have been happening all across healthcare, driven by the pandemic and its lasting effects. While Kaiser Permanente has experienced the same pressures, the organization has weathered these challenges better than the broader market."

The healthcare provider has filled 9,000 positions as part of its agreement with the union coalition to hire 10,000 represented employees by the end of 2023, the spokesperson added.

Also Wednesday, Kaiser released a video titled "The true cost of a strike," which tells employees that although the healthcare organization respects their right to strike, they should "consider its impact on our members and patients -- and the financial impact on you and your family."

How staffing levels affect patients

If there is a strike, patients may face further delays in care and procedures. The workers who would be on strike include imaging technologists, surgical technologists, certified nursing assistants and licensed practical nurses.

Besides doctors and registered nurses, "there is a whole other world that makes sure the hospital is functioning," said Rashaad Pritchett, an environmental-services worker at Kaiser Permanente in Richmond, Calif. "We matter as well."

Pritchett cleans Kaiser's hospital rooms. "Imagine me being rushed to clean an operating room, and you're up next on the surgery table," he said.

Staffing levels are one of the reasons Pritchett voted to authorize a strike, he said, even though it would be financially "catastrophic" for him. He makes $29 an hour.

Another reason is that he lives and works in his community. When he goes to work, he said, "I see relatives, aunts, uncles, cousins. ... In our communities, we are all doing this for our patients."

One Kaiser member who spoke with MarketWatch on Wednesday said she has noticed a recent difference in her care that may be related to staffing.

Robin Evans, a Kaiser member in San Francisco, said she used to be a "beach bunny" from her many years of living in Florida and makes it a point to get herself checked for cancer every year. In the past, she has had to get a small spot above her lip surgically removed. This summer, in either July or August, she tried to make an appointment with her dermatologist for a checkup and because she noticed a new spot on her forehead.

The first available appointment was in October. "I was shocked," she told MarketWatch. "I'd never had to wait that long for an appointment before, and I had an actual, current issue needing resolution. And there were no other dermatologists I could see."

Before this year, Evans said, she typically could make an appointment within the month, perhaps two or three weeks out. She has "liked Kaiser for the most part" in her 30 years of being a member, she added.

The delay in getting an appointment concerned her enough that she wrote a letter to member services describing how "disturbing this was," she said; though she didn't receive a response, she heard back from the dermatology department soon afterward and was able to see her dermatologist in late August.

In response to a request for comment about Evans's case, the Kaiser spokesperson said that after "the Great Resignation hit healthcare and more than 5 million people left their jobs across the country," the organization hired more than 23,000 people in 2022, and has hired an additional 22,000 people this year. He added that Kaiser's turnover rate "is only 8.5%."

'It tears you apart'

The staffing concerns appear to be widespread, affecting many departments.

Jimmie Morris, a longtime respiratory therapist at Kaiser in Manteca, Calif., said he makes good money -- about $65 an hour -- but voted to authorize a strike because he is concerned about staffing levels that have affected patients. "Being here for 15 years, I've never seen patient care get to this level," he said.

Morris said it is taking 90 to 120 days to replace employees who leave. "What's happening in that department as you wait for a replacement?" he said. "Patients are getting upset with us, because it looks like we're not doing our best."

One particular instance illustrating the consequences of short staffing sticks in his mind: a patient, whose cancer had metastasized to her spine, having to sit in the emergency room for six hours while in excruciating pain.

"It tears you apart," Morris said. "You can feel their pain."

-Levi Sumagaysay

This content was created by MarketWatch, which is operated by Dow Jones & Co. MarketWatch is published independently from Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal.


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09-21-23 1016ET

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