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Let’s Make a Deal: Kaiser Permanente and Unions Reach Accord

October 18, 2023

As we reported last week, health system giant Kaiser Permanente (KP) was faced with more than a few unhappy campers over the last month. A coalition of unions organized a three-day work stoppage in several states designed to signal employee dissatisfaction with wages, benefits and working conditions at various KP facilities. The multi-state joint demonstration involved 75,000 medical workers, making it the largest strike in American healthcare industry history.

The Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions (CKPU) didn’t stop there. Its leadership had further threatened a 10-day strike later in November, according to a report in HealthcareDive. Clearly, CKPU members were sending a message.

Message Received

Evidently, the unions’ three-day demonstration and threat of a longer strike got the attention they were designed to elicit. Management received the message loud and clear as evidenced by KP officials’ willingness to go to the bargaining table with union representatives and seek a solution that would be mutually beneficial to all parties. According to numerous news outlets, a tentative agreement was reached this past Friday after multiple all-night negotiation sessions that were mediated, in part, by acting U.S. Labor Department Secretary Julie Su.

While the complete details of the agreement, which Su called “historic,” have not yet been released, we can reveal a few broad outlines of the deal. According to the union coalition, KP agreed to raise wages by 21 percent over four years in all its facilities and establish a new healthcare worker minimum wage of $25 per hour in California and $23 per hour in other states where it operates.

In addition, a KP official said the health system had agreed to accelerate hiring. This, according to the official, would act to further the KP’s commitment to address the staffing shortage issue over which union workers had voiced concerns due to its connection with worker burnout.

During a briefing for new media, Dave Regan, the president of SEIU-UHW, the largest union in the coalition, said that the tentative agreement includes an annual bonus program for unionized workers tied to the success of two metrics: the number of patients who receive preventative vaccinations, like the flu vaccine, and the amount that total blood pressure is reduced among Kaiser Permanente patients.

Moving Forward

According to a CNN Business report, the union coalition represents 40 percent of Kaiser Permanente’s non-physician workforce and includes a wide range of medical workers, including EMTs, X-ray technicians, nursing assistants and respiratory care practitioners. It also represents hospital support staff, including maintenance and janitorial staff as well as food services. These workers—about 85,000 strong—will get the opportunity to ratify or reject the tentative agreement hammered out by union and KP officials.

Yes, that’s right. At the time of this writing, the handshake deal is not a done deal. It is entirely possible that the rank-and-file members of the union coalition may vote to reject the agreement. If that happens, a more prolonged strike could be in the offing.

HealthcareDive has noted that there are multiple strikes currently underway at hospitals across the country. For example:

  • In California, nearly 2,000 workers are concluding a five-day strike at Prime Healthcare after citing concerns about staffing levels.
  • In New Jersey, nurses at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital have been on strike since August over staffing concerns.

Hospital decisionmakers increasingly may be faced with the two options facing Kaiser Permanente: endure work stoppages with their attendant costs or attempt to reach an acceptable agreement with workforce representatives. Labor unrest is on the rise, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers. This may be a wave with which hospital administrators will simply need to contend. So, roll with it. Make the best of it. Hopefully, some long-term good will come out of it.

With best wishes,

Chris Martin
Senior Vice President—BPO

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