85,000 Kaiser Permanente workers are voting on whether to authorize a strike.
If the Kaiser strike is authorized, it would be the nation's largest healthcare strike in history.
The strike would impact over 11 million Kaiser Permanente users across seven states and DC.
The Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions will conduct a strike authorization vote beginning August 26. The vote will last through mid-September, said Dave Regan, president of the SEIU United Healthcare Workers West, at a press conference on Thursday.
If union members vote to strike, the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions could walk as early as October 1. With 85,000 members in its ranks, it would be the largest healthcare strike in the country's history, organizers say.
The Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions is a collection of healthcare worker unions at Kaiser Permanente facilities in California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, DC, Hawaii, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington. Kaiser Permanente is known for providing its patients with both coverage plans and healthcare under the same company.
Kaiser Permanente has hundreds of facilities across the country — including 39 hospitals and 715 medical offices — serving more than 12 million people. The Coalition represents workers in 95% of these facilities, Regan said, meaning more than 11 million Kaiser Permanente users could be affected.
The call for a strike authorization vote comes five weeks before their contract with Kaiser Permanente expires. Union leaders say they are calling for increased staffing to protect patients and workers alike, a raise in pay differentials for evening and night shifts, and stability for remote workers.
"If Kaiser does not come correct in the next 45 days or so before the expiration of this agreement, there will be a nationwide strike and that will be something that is avoidable," Regan said. "It would be a tragedy. It is not what this workforce wants to do, but it is what we are being left no choice to do."
Wayne Davis, a spokesperson for Kaiser Permanente, told Insider that union members should reject the call to strike.
"We take any threat to disrupt care for our members seriously and have plans to ensure continued access to healthcare by our members, patients, and the communities we serve, should any union call for a strike," Davis wrote.
Union representatives said they understood that a strike would affect patient healthcare but that staffing issues at the company were already negatively affecting patients — and workers.
"A strike would cause delays. But do you know what else causes delays in patient care? Not having the staff to treat the patients waiting six months in Colorado for a radiology appointment. That causes delays in care," Caroline Lucas, executive director of the Coalition, said at the press conference. "We would go on strike because we care about fixing those things."
The strike would happen on the grounds of unfair labor practices, including Kaiser Permanente's failure to bargain in good faith and failure to provide relevant information as required by law, Regan said.
Davis said these reports are "unfounded."
"We remain committed to bargaining with our Coalition unions in good faith and in the spirit of partnership," Davis wrote. "We will focus our energy on frank and productive discussions that lead to an agreement, and to doing our part to ensure there are no disruptions to the high-quality care we provide."
Organizers say that ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began, healthcare workers have been under immense strain because of limited staffing — and it isn't getting better.
Liz Grigsby, a respiratory therapist and union member, said memories of patient deaths due to staffing shortages haunt her. She spoke about one patient in particular, a mother battling COVID-19 after giving birth.
"I made a promise to her to stay by her side to come back and to provide the support she desperately needed, but the painful reality of short staffing prevented me for fulfilling that promise," Grigsby said at the press conference. "When I came back, she already died."
Davis says the company has worked with the Coalition to accelerate hiring, and that they have already filled 6,500 positions.
Catherine Engler, a licensed vocational nurse and union member, said patients are slipping through the cracks as staffing shortages continue.
"I lie awake at night wondering if I did everything I'm supposed to for both my family and my patients," Engler said at the press conference. "It scares me that we don't have enough staff. Healthcare workers are leaving the industry because they can't take it anymore, making the existing short-staff crisis worse and hurting our patients."
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