Kaiser Permanente healthcare workers in Fresno expect they’ll have the votes to authorize a strike by this Wednesday, local union representatives say.
The lab technicians, respiratory therapists, cooking staff, housekeepers, and other health care workers at Kaiser’s facilities in Fresno say they are fed up with what they described as a staffing crisis at the nonprofit health care provider.
They’re represented by Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, which covers about 1,500 Fresno County Kaiser employees, according to Renée Saldaña, the union’s press secretary.
SEIU-UHW’s members are casting their votes on whether to strike through Wednesday, union member and Kaiser cytotechnologist Melanie Reno told Fresnoland. The Fresno workers could walk off the job as soon as Oct. 1 if a majority of members vote yes.
“I believe it is going to happen,” Reno said. “It’s just a matter of when.”
The potential Kaiser worker strike would be the latest in a wave of labor actions sweeping California and the nation this year.
In Fresno, it would add pressure to a system that already struggling to find enough physicians to serve the population.
Kaiser leaders meanwhile insist the strike authorization vote “does not reflect any breakdown in bargaining” and called it “a disappointing action” given recent progress in negotiations in an emailed statement on Sept. 8.
SEIU-UHW isn’t the only Kaiser employees’ union taking a strike vote right now. They’re part of a coalition of unions covering over 85,000 health care workers in California and other states, including Colorado, where members already overwhelmingly voted in favor of a strike.
Still, leaders at the healthcare system said they’re confident a new agreement will be reached before the workers’ contract expires on Sept. 30.
“We will urge our employees to reject any call for an actual strike in October,” the statement reads, “and continue to focus on providing high-quality care and service to our members, patients, and communities who need us to be there for them.”
Kaiser didn’t elaborate on how it plans to maintain services in the event of a strike. But Reno said she and other employees see management taking steps to gear up for it.
“We have seen the notices about how much they’re willing to pay people to try to come in and work through a work stoppage,” she said. “We know they’re making plans for how they’re going to handle this.”
What Are the Kaiser Workers’ Sticking Points?
The union has been in contract talks with Kaiser since May, Reno said.
Members across the country are pushing for wage increases to keep up with the rising cost of living in Fresno and other cities where Kaiser operates healthcare facilities.
“We’re just trying to survive here with a fair wage and better workload distribution,” said Maurizio Blanco, a housekeeper at Kaiser, while collecting members’ ballots Monday outside the cafeteria of Kaiser’s Fresno Medical Center.
Union leaders argue boosting pay will also combat staffing shortages that are affecting working conditions, Saldaña said.
“They are extremely stressed out,” Saldaña said of Kaiser employees, “(and) burnt out because they’re having to do the work of two to three people.
“Kaiser has made its promises about hiring,” she added, “but they’re still not moving fast enough.”
One proposal from the coalition includes a $25 per hour minimum wage within Kaiser.
Kaiser has countered that this proposal “would not reflect market labor costs” across the different locales where it pays workers.
“Our philosophy is to deliver compensation that provides wages above the local market (at or up to 10% above market),” Kaiser’s statement said, “to attract and retain the best employees. Market wages are currently at different levels all over the country, so we need to tailor wage increases so everybody benefits fairly.”
How a Kaiser Worker Strike Could Affect Patients
Members say the union’s proposals are not just aimed at improving the situation for Kaiser workers but also for patients. Many of these employees are in fact Kaiser patients as well, including Reno.
As a cytotechnologist, she helps with the collection of samples and biopsies to diagnose cancer patients. But she’s also a cancer patient at Kaiser herself and has seen how the short-staffing affects care.
“I went through from diagnosis to treatment and I never actually physically saw a doctor in person,” she said. “My situation is not unique because as I’ve talked to patients who are coming in for their biopsies … we kind of swap stories while they’re waiting for the doctor to come up.”
“I’m lucky as (someone with) a medical background,” she added, “I was able to understand a lot of the process with the testing. But a lot of people don’t. They’re being crammed through these systems, and it’s scary.”
The final bargaining session before the union’s contract expires is scheduled for Sept. 21 through Sept. 23, according to Saldaña.
The union is required to give Kaiser at least 10 days’ notice before a work stoppage since they’re in a medical care setting.
About the Author
Julianna Morano is the labor and economy reporter at Fresnoland.
Fresnoland is a nonprofit news organization dedicated to making policy public.