Some 3,400 nurses and other health professionals working for Kaiser Permanente in Oregon and Southwest Washington plan to go on strike later this month, joining what could become a national work stoppage by nurses working for the health care giant.
The Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals said Thursday that it is giving Kaiser 10 days notice, as required by law, that a strike that will start at 6:00 am on Nov. 15 unless a contract agreement is reached. The nurses and health workers’ contract expired on Sept. 30.
The Oregon union is part of an alliance of 21 local unions that have joined together to negotiate with Kaiser. Two California union groups that are also part of the alliance have announced plans to strike on the same day. Between Oregon, Washington, and California, a total of 32,000 Kaiser workers could boycott their jobs later this month.
The unions oppose Kaiser’s effort to curb rising health care costs by creating a two-tiered system with lower wages and reduced benefits for new hires. Kaiser had also proposed reducing an expected 3% to 4% wage increase for nurses.
Union leaders say management’s proposal will make it harder to recruit and retain nurses at a time when many are burned out and considering leaving the field.
“We hoped that simply authorizing the strike, holding rallies and other forms of collective worker and community action would push Kaiser to do the right thing, but they have continued to push proposals that would create dangerous conditions for patients and staff,” said Jodi Barschow, a Kaiser Sunnyside registered nurse and president of the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals in a prepared statement. “Striking is our last resort, but it is what we must do so that we can protect our patients, our workers, and our entire public healthcare system from the disastrous attack Kaiser leadership is staging.”
Kaiser executives defended their position in a lengthy statement posted on the company’s website Thursday, stating that because the nonprofit has negotiated wages primarily at a national level, its current employees are paid on average 26% above market rates.
“The challenge we face is that this is unsustainable. If we continue to increase costs so high above the marketplace, we will become unaffordable and lose members,” Arlene Peasnall, Kaiser Permanente’s senior vice president of human resources, said in the statement. “And the fact is: Wages and benefits account for half of Kaiser Permanente’s operational costs, a contributing factor to why health care is becoming increasingly unaffordable.”
The Oregon Nurses Association, which represents over 15,000 health professionals in Oregon, recently announced their support for a strike and said they will not act as replacement workers for Kaiser.
Kaiser said it hopes to avert a strike, but if one occurs, it plans to keep hospitals open and continue to provide patient care. Service changes could include rescheduling some appointments and surgeries.