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March 1, 2024

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Kaiser workers in Clark County, elsewhere vote to authorize strike

Union cites staffing, low wages; contract to expire Sept. 30

By , Columbian staff writer

As a strike vote comes to a close, the union that represents Kaiser Permanente health care workers announced Thursday that 98 percent of its members have voted to authorize a strike.

“Understaffing in Kaiser Permanente facilities is a crisis, and health care workers will not stand by as Kaiser fails to act and fails to even bargain in good faith with their dedicated frontline staff,” SEIU Local 49 President Meg Niemi said in Thursday’s statement.

A statement released by Kaiser on Thursday afternoon said the health care system is confident an agreement will be reached before the union’s contract expires on Sept. 30.

“Our priority is to reach an agreement that ensures we can continue to provide market-competitive pay and outstanding benefits,” the statement said.

Kaiser operates five medical offices in Clark County, as well as two dental offices. The union, which includes members in Oregon and Washington, has about 700 members who live in Clark County, and nearly 400 who work here.

Four thousand members of the union voted to authorize the strike as early as Oct. 1 if no agreement is reached by Sept. 30.

A spokesperson for the union says there is another bargaining session scheduled for late next week. With the union needing to give Kaiser 10 days notice before a strike begins, notice would have to be given by Sept. 21 in order for the strike to begin Oct. 1. Notice could also be given earlier, or it could be given later for a later strike date.

Thursday’s statement said the health care workers are concerned that unsafe staffing levels can lead to long wait times, mistaken diagnoses and neglect.

The local union members are among 85,000 Kaiser employees across the country expected to vote on a strike authorization. The Kaiser members in California and Colorado have already voted to approve a strike, while voting for other Kaiser unions will end Sept. 20.

The union said that the health care system has brought forth proposals in negotiations that would further contribute to the staffing crisis. Those include eliminating performance bonuses for frontline workers, removing protections against subcontractors, offering low starting wages for certain positions, not raising wages with the cost of living and not committing enough in training staff.

Kaiser’s statement said these assertions are misleading. The health care system claims it has made proposals to create a minimum payment level for its performance bonus program, instead of making the program a guaranteed payout for all employees regardless of performance. It also said the health care system wants to be able to be more nimble and affordable in bringing on subcontractors in specific circumstances. Further, the statement said Kaiser’s leaders have proposed a $21 minimum wage across the company, with starting wages being higher in some areas and roles and across-the-board wage increases of 10 percent to 14 percent over four years. The company also pointed to its Futuro Health nonprofit as evidence for its investment in staff training.

“If Kaiser won’t bargain in good faith, we’re prepared to do whatever it takes to stand up for our patients and the safe staffing they deserve. We will be going on strike if Kaiser doesn’t stop committing unfair labor practices,” said Audrey Cardenas Loera, benefits specialist at Kaiser Tanasbourne Dental.

The company said it was on track to hire 45 percent more SEIU staff members in Oregon and Southwest Washington than it did in 2022.

Kaiser’s statement said the health care system has comprehensive plans to ensure continued access for patients should a strike occur.

“We will urge our employees to reject any call for an actual strike 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,” read the statement.