Saturday, April 1, 2023

Big Majority of Oregon, SW Washington Kaiser Permanente Employees Approve Strike

Big Majority of Oregon, SW Washington Kaiser Permanente Employees Approve Strike

The nearly 3,400 nurses and other workers at Kaiser Permanente in Oregon and southwest Washington have voted 96% in favor of authorizing a strike.

The employees can now call a strike at any time, but they have to give Kaiser management 10 days’ notice before any sort of walkout. Leaders of the various employee groups were meeting Monday morning to plot future strategy, a union spokesman said.

Union officials said they were heartened by the wide approval margin, and perhaps more so by the heavy 90% turnout. Voting ended Sunday night.

 “Our members turned out in record numbers to say that they are willing to do what it takes to save patient care in Oregon,” said Jodi Barschow, a registered nurse at Kaiser Sunnyside and president of the Oregon Federation of Nurses & Health Professionals, the union that represents Kaiser workers.

Union leaders say Kaiser is offering current employees 1% raises and wants to institute a two-tiered system in which new hires will start at significantly lower compensation than established employees.

“Kaiser’s proposals would be a disaster for Oregon’s entire care system and show a profound disrespect for the frontline healthcare workers who are risking their lives during COVID,” Barschow said.

Kaiser officials declined Monday morning to get into any specifics of its negotiating positions.

“We strongly believe that differences in bargaining are best worked out at the bargaining table, and we have a 24-year history of union partnership which proves that point,” said Arlene Peasnall, senior vice president of human resources, in a statement.

The timing of the strike comes at a difficult time for Kaiser and its employees. They are dealing with an unprecedented pandemic while facing a nationwide shortage of nurses. It is trying to cope with an unending caseload of COVID employees with frontline workers that are exhausted and disheartened.

And now, Kaiser faces the vaccine mandate, which almost certainly will lead to the departure of some of its employees. The health system has placed about 190 local employees on administrative leave, or about 1.5% of the active workforce, according to Mike Foley, a regional spokesman. They were placed on leave because they weren’t vaccinated and had not sought an exemption.

As of last week, 89% of its more than 11,000 employees had been vaccinated. Of the remaining 1,200, about 1,000 have applied for exemptions from the mandate. It remains to be seen how many of those applications Kaiser will approve.

It’s been 33 years since Kaiser faced a major strike. Its Oregon and southwest Washington operation run two hospitals, Sunnyside Medical Center in Clackamas and the Kaiser Permanente Westside Medical Center in Hillsboro as well as about 50 other clinics and other facilities.

Kaiser’s Peasnall said the company will rely on its physicians, managers, and “contingency” employees to operate its 52 facilities in Oregon.

“Our priority is to continue to provide our members with high quality, safe care,” she said. “We are extremely grateful for our frontline health care employees, whose commitment to providing care and service throughout the pandemic has been nothing short of inspiring.”