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News / Business / Clark County Business

Kaiser health care workers in Vancouver join thousands across the country on picket lines

75,000 unionized Kaiser Permanente health care employees are on strike in 5 states and Washington, D.C.

By Chrissy Booker, Columbian staff writer
Published: October 4, 2023, 11:07am

Unionized health care workers picketed outside of Kaiser Permanente’s Cascade Park Medical Office this morning, marking the start of the largest health care strike in U.S. history.

About 300 members of the Service Employees International Union Local 49, which represents more than 15,000 health care employees across Southwest Washington and Oregon, gathered outside the Mill Plain Boulevard office on a foggy morning wearing matching shirts and holding signs that read “patients over profits.”

It did not take long for cars passing by to begin honking in support.

The Vancouver picket was part of a strike that began at 6 a.m. Wednesday by more than 75,000 unionized Kaiser Permanente health care employees. The employees are represented by a coalition of eight unions that comprise 40 percent of Kaiser Permanente’s staff.

Employees striking include nursing staff, dietary workers, receptionists, optometrists, and pharmacists. The strike comes after the previous union contract expired at 11:59 p.m. on Sept. 30. According to union leaders at Cascade Park, negotiations continued until Wednesday, but no deal has been reached.

Union members said they will continue to picket until 6 p.m. today. The strike is expected to end Friday at 6 p.m., but it could last longer if contract negotiations do not progress.

While the only picket line in Clark County is at the Cascade Park Medical Office, SEIU 49 confirmed Wednesday that all its members are taking part in the three-day strike at Kaiser’s 65 locations in the region.

Post-pandemic conflict

Kaiser Permanente health care workers in California, Colorado, Washington, Virginia, Oregon and Washington, D.C., walked off the job over what they say are unfair labor practices.

In the midst of the pandemic, health care workers said they are fighting for a safer working environment and strategies to address short staffing levels at Kaiser facilities.

Audrey Cardenas Loera, benefits support specialist at the Tanasbourne Dental Office in Oregon, helps her patients set up payment plans and coordinate their benefits. She said she feels Kaiser has not properly addressed the needs of thousands of health care workers.

“Our patients are No. 1, and we want to be able to provide the care they need, but we need the protection ourselves, too” said Cardenas Loera, who is also a member of the union bargaining team said. “Kaiser has the resources. Kaiser has the money. They need to step up. This is us standing up for our patients.”

Contract proposal

SEIU Local 49 said on its website Sunday morning that Kaiser’s latest proposal did not address its biggest concerns and that they still remain far apart on certain issues. Union leaders proposed a 6.5 percent across-the-board raise in the first two years of the labor contract and a 5.75 percent raise in the next two years.

Kaiser’s “enhanced proposal”  offered a maximum 4 percent raise for the first two years and a 3 percent raise for the next two years, but union leaders said it is not adequate enough to address the rising cost of living.

In a statement, Kaiser Permanente said it leads in pay.

“We lead total compensation in every market where we operate, and our proposals in bargaining would ensure we keep that position,” Kaiser Permanente said.

Union leaders are also asking for protection against subcontracting and outsourcing, a fair performance sharing program bonus and improvements to the current retiree medical plan and benefits structure.

“Kaiser executives are still not listening and continue to refuse to come to the table with acceptable proposals for our top priorities,” dental assistant Jennifer Obeid said on SEIU 49’s web page. “We know that Kaiser can afford to do better and that our patients — and all of us — deserve better.”

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Care for patients during the strike

Registered nurses, doctors and dentists are not on the picket lines, as they have signed a contract with Kaiser that extends for four years. Kaiser said it will continue to prioritize patient care during the strike, according to a statement on its website from Sunday. Patients may experience longer wait times in office or have to reschedule appointments and surgeries.

Pharmacy locations at hospitals and urgent care will remain open, but as of Sunday, the Salmon Creek and Orchards outpatient pharmacies were temporarily closed. Kaiser, which says pharmacy closures are subject to change, is keeping an updated list of closures and service interruptions on its website.

During the strike period, Kaiser will only be able to take credit card, debit card and FSA card payments in its pharmacies.

“Our team is available 24/7 to continue bargaining with the coalition until we reach a fair and equitable agreement. We’re continuing to make progress in bargaining and hope you agree that the most effective and quickest way for us to reach an agreement is at the bargaining table, not the picket line.” Kaiser said in a statement on its web page Sunday.

Kaiser Permanente’s model differs from the fee-for-service model that many health care providers in the U.S employ. The fee-for-fee system is when a doctor or health care provider gets paid for each service performed. However, Kaiser Permanente members pay dues to the organization for access to all of Kaiser Permanente’s health care services.

Strike efforts
across the country

The strike comes at a moment of widespread labor activity across the country. The United Auto Workers are on strike against Ford, General Motors and Stellantis. The Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America joined efforts in a dual strike throughout summer, which is ongoing for the actors guild. Many of them said they are fighting for better wages and protection from employers.

“At one point we were being called health care heroes,” Cardenas Loera said. “This is not how you treat your heroes. Kaiser needs to show us that we are valued and that we are not replaceable people.”

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.