Kaiser nurses strike amid contract negotiations
on November 14, 2014
The California Nurses Association, part of the National Nurses United labor union, staged a 2-day strike this week after contract negotiations with Kaiser Permanente in Northern California halted earlier this month over a range of staffing and workplace issues.
The union said that 18 thousand nurses walked off the job on November 11 and 12. But health maintenance organization Kaiser Permanente disputed that figure, saying the total number of nurses affected by the action was closer to 16 thousand, and that only about 7 thousand nurses are scheduled to work on any given day. According to Kaiser, representatives of its Northern California facilities were affected, but remained open as nurses picketed its Oakland hospital and other sites.
Union grievances with the health plan’s hospitals—aired in flyers, protesters’ chants and interviews—revolved around work conditions. The union has been in contract negotiations with Kaiser since late July, and the nurses’ contracts were extended twice since the talks began, said Katy Roemer, a registered nurse at Kaiser. According to a press release on the union’s website, contract talks stalled in early November.
At the demonstration in Oakland, CNA literature said that during contract negotiations, the union presented Kaiser with “proposals focused on improved staffing, education/training, break relief, and ensuring that [nurses] have the necessary resources and equipment to provide safe and effective patient care.” The nurses also said in their literature that Kaiser rejected most of the proposals or gave counter-proposals that “grossly failed” to meet the needs of patients and nurses, or left them “even worse off” than they are now.
In a press release, Kaiser officials said the company has been working with the union throughout the bargaining process, and that its officials are “perplexed” that the union went on strike. “There have been 39 proposals and we have countered and provided feedback on every single one,” said Odette C. Bolano, senior vice president and area manager of Kaiser East Bay Area. “We are not willing to negotiate when we haven’t heard back from them. … We’re willing to sit with CNA any day, all hours of the day, to make sure that we address the issues and get past this bargaining.”
Bolano said she couldn’t comment any further on the specifics of the negotiations. “Those discussions need to take place at the bargaining table between CNA and our Kaiser representatives,” she said.
The union said hospital understaffing is a key issue that needs to be addressed. A CNA flyer said they lost 2,046 nurse positions in the past three years, but didn’t go into detail about what caused these staffing losses. “Our patients are sicker, yet we have less time with them,” the flyer stated.
But Kaiser officials said in a statement that’s not true, and that its hospitals have the number of nurses on the floor that are required by state law. “Our nurse staffing always meets, and often exceeds, state-required levels,” the statement said. “Because of changes in how and where patients are receiving care that are affecting all of health care, we do have some pockets where we are overstaffed and need to move nurses where they are needed.”
Still, some CNA nurses said the state law is not enough. “They meet the letter of the law, but not the intent of the law, which is to make sure that there are enough nurses [and] that the patients are getting the care that they need,” said Juliana Rather, a registered nurse at Kaiser in Oakland.
Though CNA’s strike centers around the stalled contract negotiations and patient care, nurses also expressed concern with the healthcare provider’s Ebola preparedness protocols and guidelines. The unions were particularly vocal about the issue in October, when National Nurses United (NNU) met with California Governor and former Oakland mayor Jerry Brown to discuss the Ebola preparedness measures nurses have experienced at their facilities, which the union considers inadequate. NNU organized demonstrations in Oakland and also sent a letter to President Obama about the reforms members want to see.
At the bargaining table, CNA representatives said they told Kaiser their nurses want Hazmat suits, insurance in case a nurse contracts Ebola, interactive training, and the development of an infectious disease control taskforce. The union contends that Kaiser has refused.
But Bolano said Kaiser has not only met but exceeded the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines with regard to the Ebola virus. “Three weeks ago [the CNA] said that they were going to strike on Ebola, and we’re not hearing that. They’ve seen that we’re fully prepared and have taken a lot of time and effort to make sure that we are prepared and have trained and provided personal protective equipment to all our staff,” Bolano said.
Another union that represents healthcare workers at Kaiser, United Healthcare Workers West (UHW), didn’t go on strike. Earlene Person, a licensed vocational nurse at Kaiser in Oakland who is represented by UHW, said her union has worked side-by-side with Kaiser on Ebola preparedness. She says UHW does not support the CNA strike.
In November, UHW, along with several other unions, co-hosted an Ebola virus educational session with Kaiser in Los Angeles. The session, also available by telecast, taught healthcare workers how to properly care for a patient infected by the virus. “We know Kaiser is prepared,” Person said. “We’ve been there and been a part of it.”
According to a CNA representative, Kaiser nurses have returned to work and are currently working without a contract. Right now it’s not clear when Kaiser or CNA will return to the bargaining table, and if there is going to be another strike, but both parties said they want the issues to be resolved.
“Nurses, believe it or not, don’t want to go on strike,” Roemer said.
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