More Than 30,000 Health Care Workers Are on the Verge of Striking

On November 4, a handful of unions representing more than
30,000 Kaiser Permanente workers notified the health system of their intention
to strike on November 15, a move that would be among the largest hospital
workplace actions in recent memory. The strike, should workers not make a deal
with their employer, would be truly massive in scope. It would affect at least
366 facilities in Southern California alone, spanning from hospitals and
medical offices to clinics in Target department stores, as well as facilities
in Oregon and Southern Washington. In preparation for November 15, a staffing agency is already
recruiting strike nurses in Southern California, who would be paid as much
as $12,500 a day to help Kaiser cut wages for new employees by as much as 36
percent and avoid giving its current workers more than a 1 percent raise.
Kaiser has said it’s unwilling to negotiate on these numbers and that it’s
taking these drastic measures on employee compensation in order to lower
patients’ costs. But theoretically, based on the membership numbers provided by
just one of the unions intending to strike and the listings pitched to nurses
willing to cross a picket line, replacing 19,000 striking nurses could cost $237
million a week. If you add up every single worker who has threatened to
strike—including pharmacists, occupational therapists, optometrists, and others—the
weekly cost of the striking hospital system could exceed $250 million (provided
current staffing levels are retained). “Clearly the company is being disingenuous in their desire to cut
costs,” said Jane Carter, a labor economist and a member of the
bargaining team for the United Nurses Association of California/Union of Health
Care Professionals.If they were to walk off the job, Kaiser employees would
join tens of thousands of Americans who have taken part in nearly 170
strikes this year, most of them in industries deemed
essential during the pandemic, who labored under threat of infection and
exhaustion to keep businesses afloat. The Kaiser dispute centers on the issue
of two-tier pay, a system deployed in the past by struggling companies under
extreme duress, which is now increasingly being proposed by profitable entities.
For every measure taken during a crisis, there is, apparently, an opportunity to
make the crisis the norm.  Essentially, the two-tier system proposed by Kaiser imposes
different wages for the exact same work. A practice common through the 1980s, it
was most famously used by car manufacturers in 2007, during the industry’s
near-collapse. But even Fiat’s CEOs called it “unsustainable,” considering how obviously it fomented tension
between employees and eviscerated morale, which isn’t to mention the general cynicism
of reducing pay for new employees based on the idea that a company can’t sustain its
previous estimation of a living wage. How interesting, then, that
John Deere workers are striking over two-tier pay when the company hit
record profits and the CEO made $15.6 million last year and that Kellogg’s workers are also striking, in part to turn over a system that has new hires
receiving limited benefits and making $10 less than their counterparts every
hour. Kellogg’s,
incidentally, saw its profits rise more than a quarter over the course of
2020. Its CEO received more than $11 million in compensation during the same
year. According to Kaiser’s most recent Securities and Exchange Commission filing, which, granted, is from the
distant past of 2019, more
than 30 Kaiser executives made over $1 million a year. The plan Kaiser is
proposing would cut pay for new health care workers between 26 and 39 percent, at a moment when almost every executive is quite publicly panicking over
not being able to find
enough nurses to make their businesses run. For the most part, Kaiser has
framed this issue around the problems of equity in access to health care: “If
we continue to increase costs so high about the marketplace, we will become
unaffordable and lose members,” a representative from the company’s H.R. department has
said. “And the fact is: Health care is increasingly unaffordable, and
escalating wages are half the cost of health care.”Through the grimmest months of the pandemic, a flurry of
stories described troubling practices within Kaiser facilities. In one Fresno
hospital, health care workers cobbled together their own respirators with
sheets of plastic and electrical tape and blamed the hospital for the death
of a nurse who they said hadn’t been provided with adequate protection. After
the state of California granted a staffing waiver to reduce patient ratios in
December 2020, staff described patients crammed so tightly into single rooms, a worker had to climb over a bed
to treat someone who was ill. As of this year, the system had received more
citations from California’s worker-safety agency than any
other in the state, generating almost $500,000 in fines. It is also, as of
July, the subject of six complaints alleging it defrauded the government through
the intentional miscoding of Medicare patients. Through all this, Kaiser, like many
of the other massive conglomerates that
have increasingly come to dominate the industry, reported steep incomes as
the pandemic raged on. Though the system is a nonprofit, it is among the
largest in the country, operating 700 medical offices and nearly 40 hospitals
in nine states. Earlier this year, following scrutiny over Cares Act payments,
the nonprofit returned $500 million of the grants it had received and still
managed to report $6.4 billion in income in 2020. But the UNAC/UHCP’s
members said the system is forecasting a dire future if it continues to pay all
staff members the wages that were paid as they treated Covid-19 patients in crowded
clinics without enough equipment to keep themselves safe. So far, the two-tier payment system Kaiser is proposing has
baffled the members of the union, who only see the health system growing.
Carter says she’d be happy to explore other ways to cut costs, but the wage
system would likely cost the system more in training and turnover in the
long run, which isn’t to mention the back-of-the-napkin math about how much it
would cost to hire an army of scabs. “I’m a labor economist,” she said, “and I
don’t understand how this company can legit put forward this proposal.”   

2021-11-08 | Sold Short, Labor, Health Care | English |