More than 24,000 nurses, healthcare workers sanction strike

Workers in California and Oregon threaten to walk out over pay and conditions

More than 24,000 nurses, healthcare workers sanction strike

More than 24,000 nurses and other health-care workers at Kaiser Permanente in California and Oregon have authorized a strike, threatening to walk out over pay and working conditions strained by the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report by The Associated Press.

Kaiser, one of the nation's largest health care providers, has proposed a two-tiered wage and benefits system that would give newer employees lower pay and fewer health protections. The unions want Kaiser to abandon that plan. They also want 4% raises for each the next three years and a commitment to hire more nurses to relieve staffing shortages. Kaiser has offered 1% a year, with additional lump sums, and says it must reduce labour costs to remain competitive.

The regional strike vote comes amid national contract negotiations between Kaiser and the Alliance of Health Care Unions, which represents more than 20 unions covering more than 50,000 Kaiser workers nationwide. More strike authorizations could come in Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Virginia, Washington state and the District of Columbia, the unions said.

This weekend's votes don't automatically trigger work stoppages. The union must give Kaiser Permanente 10 days' notice before workers walk off the job, and both sides continue bargaining after their last contract expired on Sept. 30.

Read more: Pandemic benefits to end – what now?

The strike authorization covers nurses, pharmacists, midwives, physical therapists and others represented by United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals. About 7,000 United Steelworkers union members, including housekeeping attendants, customer service representatives and pharmacy technicians, also voted to strike if necessary.

``We ask that our employees reject a call to walk away from the patients who need them. Our priority is to continue to provide our members with high-quality, safe care. In the event of any kind of work stoppage, our facilities will be staffed by our physicians along with trained and experienced managers and contingency staff,'' Kaiser Permanente responded.

Turnout among the workers was 86 percent, with 96 per cent approving a strike, the Los Angeles Times reported.

``It shows they don't take this lightly,'' said UNAC/UHCP President Denise Duncan, a registered nurse. ``They want to see a change.''

Kaiser is committed to working quickly to agree on a new contract, said Arlene Peasnall, senior vice president of human resources.

``We ask that our employees reject a call to walk away from the patients who need them,'' Peasnall's statement said. ``In the event of any kind of work stoppage, our facilities will be staffed by our physicians along with trained and experienced managers and contingency staff.''

The Times reported that Kaiser's proposal would lower the wage scale for almost every job classification represented by the alliance of unions by 26% to 39% for new hires beginning in January 2023, according to Jane Carter, a labour economist and UNAC/UHCP's director of research, regulatory affairs and public policy. If implemented, this ``two-tiered'' system could breed resentment among workers paid at different rates for the same work, cause higher turnover and impair efforts to attract and retain skilled workers, Carter said.

``They have not explained their reasoning for these draconian cuts they're proposing while they're so profitable,'' Carter said.

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