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Kaiser employees in Oakland prepare to strike

on September 5, 2019

Oakland’s largest employer was confronted with protesters on Labor Day, as healthcare workers rallied urging Kaiser Permanente to address staffing shortages and improve wages and patient care. More than 85,000 Kaiser Permanente workers nationwide are set to strike in early October, which would be the largest walkout in more than two decades, according to the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers (SEIU-UHW), the labor union representing the majority of the workers.

Outside of the Kaiser hospital at West MacArthur Boulevard and Broadway, around a thousand workers, organizers and families protested while wearing purple SEIU shirts and holding signs that read “Fed up with Kaiser Greed” and “Strike Ready.” Kids in capes and colorful face paint held a handmade banner that read “Kids demand a healthy future.” After dozens of workers temporarily blocked the intersection outside the hospital, the other members celebrated at Mosswood Park with live music and a picnic.  

“The issue at hand here in Oakland is the fact that it costs so much to live here. And our livelihood is being taken away from us,” said Valeria Vital, an emergency department technician at Kaiser Permanente Oakland, as she was leaving the rally.

Vital said that it’s important for Kaiser healthcare workers to have stable jobs because their work is crucial to residents. “We serve Oakland, especially in the emergency department. We don’t turn anybody away,” she said.

Kaiser Permanente is a non-profit but union members criticize the health care provider’s spending with a banner reading, “Corporate healthcare is failing patients.” Photo Courtesy of SEIU-UHW.

Since April, a group called the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, which represents 11 unions and a wide variety of workers from food service to billing to X-ray technicians, has been negotiating a new contract with Kaiser officials, to little resolution.

Kaiser representatives did not return repeated interview requests from Oakland North.

According to union representatives, Kaiser has yet to formally propose a salary increase as part of the bargaining process. But on August 2, company officials issued a press statement saying that raises would include 3 percent salary increases each year through 2022 for employees in Northern and Southern California. The plan also preserves the existing pension plan along with other retirement benefits, according to the press release. The union does not consider this an official offer since it was not made during negotiations.

The SEIU-UHW, which represents the majority of Kaiser Oakland workers whose contracts are up for renewal, has several objectives they will promote at the bargaining table. In a press release circulated shortly before Monday’s demonstration, union representatives did not specify a particular figure for their desired raises. But they wrote that they will negotiate for raises and benefits, and advocate to limit the outsourcing of jobs to unlicensed, low-paid employees, which they say could put clients at risk.

“For someone to both provide for their family and care about the company, they need to be paid more than a living wage,” said Sean Wherley, spokesperson for the SEIU-UHW, speaking on Monday during the rally. 

But company officials have already circulated information stating that the union’s requests will be costly. In a statement published on July 29, Kaiser spokesperson Arlene Peasnall published a statement arguing that “the Coalition’s proposal would increase our wages on average 32% above the market over the next five years, adding a billion dollars to our labor costs.” Peasnall wrote that the increase would make it “hard to keep our care affordable.”

Griselda Pineda was one of the thousand union members at the Labor Day protest outside Kaiser Permanente Oakland.

Griselda Pineda was one of the thousand union members at the Labor Day protest outside Kaiser Permanente Oakland. Photo by Jocelyn Tabancay

In the same July 29 statement, Peasnall called the coalition’s move towards a strike “counterproductive and simply a bullying tactic.” With a yes-vote to strike, negotiations must resolve by September 30, when contracts expire, or else thousands of Kaiser workers nationwide will strike.

The protesters who gathered on Monday also voiced concerns about outsourcing, a process through which they said Kaiser hires unlicensed workers through a staffing agency and pays them less than their unionized counterparts. In California, Wherley said, Kaiser has outsourced jobs that don’t require professional training, like driving parking lot shuttles and staffing pharmacy warehouse positions.

“Kaiser has some of the best-paid workers in the healthcare industry,” said  Wherley. “But that’s not what Kaiser wants to continue to do. They want to outsource jobs.”

According to Wherley, the quality of care could drastically diminish due to outsourcing and cause a constant training cycle in which under-qualified workers leave their position to search for a better job.

“We are deciding to strike because we can’t afford to lose middle-class jobs,” said Griselda Pineda, speaking in Spanish at Mosswood Park and wearing a pin that read “I will strike for my family and patients.” Pineda has been a housekeeper with Kaiser Permanente San Jose for 11 years.  

“We ask for justice for medical care. We ask for justice for workers. We ask for justice for our communities,” she continued.

SEIU-UHW has also been urging the nation’s largest non-profit healthcare organization to increase its enrollment of Medicaid patients. Medicaid provides services to low-income patients who might not otherwise be able to afford care.

The union has argued that only 8 percent of Kaiser hospital patients are covered by Medicaid, while other non-profit hospitals average 27 percent. In response, Kaiser issued a statement on July 31 on their website stating, that “Since 2013, our Medicaid enrollment has more than doubled.  But the statement does not include information on the percentage of patients that receive Medicaid.

Union officials have also criticized Kaiser officials for, in their view, not putting enough of the company’s profits into worker salaries and reducing costs for patients. Wherley said the healthcare giant should share its surplus with the patients by better serving low-income communities, and by raising wages.

According to the company’s financial summaries for the first two quarters of 2019, Kaiser Permanente has earned $5.2 billion in surplus this year alone. The coalition has also criticized the company for its executives’ salaries, with CEO Bernard Tyson leading with $16 million-a-year compensation.

In a July 31 statement published on Kaiser Permanente’s website, company officials wrote that the institution pays its all workers and executives competitively.

Kaiser Permanente and SEIU-UHW representatives will head to the negotiating table on September 16. Pending negotiations, members of the union coalition could strike nationwide beginning October 1. Wherley says that would number 24,000 healthcare workers in the Bay Area.

“Our patients need the best care and that’s what’s most important for us. That’s why we’re deciding to strike,” said Pineda.

This story was amended on September 6 to correct the accuracy of a statement about wages attributed to Wherley.

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