As roughly 4,000 Kaiser Permanente workers in Oregon and Southwest Washington go on strike this week, the health care provider is advising its patients to expect some delays.
A Service Employees International Union strike began Wednesday and is scheduled to last through early Saturday morning. The strike involves certified nursing assistants, lab staff, housekeeping staff, dental assistants and other workers. The strike compounds existing staff shortages at Kaiser as pharmacy technicians and warehouse workers began their own walkout Oct. 1.
Kaiser officials have assured patients that critical care won’t see disruptions, but less urgent needs may see delays in service despite the health provider’s “contingency plans,” according to an email sent to patients this week.
“We will absolutely do the right thing for our employees, to support them,” Kaiser spokesperson Debbie Karman wrote in a statement ahead of Wednesday’s walkout. “We also have a responsibility to make sure our high-quality care is affordable and available to meet our members’ needs.”
For patients, Kaiser has said it may need to reschedule some elective surgeries and non-urgent appointments if the strike happens. As of Tuesday, the company did not expect it would have to close any of its facilities, but warned it’s possible “you could experience longer wait and hold times” during a strike.
The ongoing strike of pharmacy workers is already having an effect at Kaiser. Outpatient pharmacies at the Tualatin, Keizer Station, Sunnybrook, Rockwood, Gateway, Salmon Creek and Orchards medical offices are temporarily closed. Pharmacies in hospitals and urgent care clinics remain open. The company has also contracted with some retail pharmacies to help fill prescriptions during the strike, and encourages patients to check in for available sites to pick up medications.
Kaiser has an unusually close partnership with its unions and has avoided most strikes since a period of labor unrest in the 1990s, but the current negotiations are more strained, according to a report in Healthcare Dive.
The SEIU employees are part of the “Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions,” a group that once represented all Kaiser’s unionized workers and negotiated a single national contract, but shrank in 2018 when some unions departed to form their own competing group.
The Coalition plans to strike in several states and the District of Columbia. The unions say Kaiser’s chronic understaffing has boosted profits but hurt patients and working conditions. Kaiser has said it offers top pay and benefits and is being hit by burnout felt across the health care industry following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Union and Kaiser representatives had continued to bargain Tuesday to try to avoid the strike. Both sides have said they want quality care for Kaiser patients, though the union told OPB that “the ball is firmly in [the administration’s] court” when it comes to staffing shortages.
OPB editor Ryan Haas contributed to this story.