About a dozen union health care workers and supporters marched in a small loop outside the Kaiser Permanente Capitol Hill Campus Wednesday afternoon. UFCW 21, which represents more than 45,000 workers from various industries in Washington, including 1,200 workers at Kaiser Permanente, brought more picket signs than they knew what to do with.
The health care workers hosted an informational picket outside the Capitol Hill campus, the Bellevue Medical Center, and the Tacoma Medical Center. Bryana Kolppa, who has worked at Kaiser Permanente as an ultrasound technician for eight years, said the picket aims to raise community awareness and to show management that they are not going to settle for a crummy contract.
The modest turnout didn’t surprise Cathy MacPhail, a union negotiator at UFCW 21, because short staffing is one of the workers’ chief concerns. For now, MacPhail is confident that employers and their bad policies will “do the organizing” for them.
“The excitement is there,” Kolppa added. “It's just the availability to get out here when you're working that’s the issue.”
Kaiser Permanente and the Alliance of Health Care Unions began national bargaining in April 2021. The two sides have not seen eye-to-eye.
The union wants 4% raises every October until 2023, but Kaiser Permanente only proposed a 1% raise plus a 1% bonus. In a statement on its website, Kaiser Permanente said it pays about 27% over market rate. As the health care industry grapples with the pandemic, the 2021 External Healthcare Labor Market Analysis projects health care staff shortages for every state by 2026. To MacPhail, it's an employee's market.
“In Washington State, you can go anywhere right now and be a health care worker, because there are so many people leaving the industry right now due to COVID,” said Cathy MacPhail, a union negotiator at UFCW 21. “All of the other employers are literally saying, ‘Hey, what do we need to pay to keep people here?’ and Kaiser is saying, ‘We should do some cuts.’”
Kaiser proposed a two-tier wage structure, which would create a market-based compensation structure for all employees hired in 2023; that is, they want to cut costs with the newbies without pissing off their more senior workers, and the union is not into it.
The union workers also asked for an increase in tuition reimbursement and student loan assistance. Kaiser Permanente has not responded to either of those proposals.
Kolppa said negotiations on this contract have been much more difficult than negotiations on the last contract. She also remembers a time not too long ago when health care workers were called “heroes” for their work during the pandemic.
“We don't feel like ‘heroes’ anymore,” she said. “It's still COVID. We're still at risk every day. And they're telling us we’re not worth the raise. It just feels like it's back to normal when out on the floor working with our patients. It's not back to normal. It's still really scary.”
Though the contract expired in September, Kaiser Permanente and the Alliance of Health Care Unions are still at the bargaining table. In October, 24,000 Kaiser health care workers authorized a strike in California and Oregon.
In an email, Kaiser Permanente Washington vice president of human resources Jocelynne McAdory said the hospital was "prepared to engage with [the employees] in an interest-based process to reach a mutually beneficial solution.”
“As the largest health care union employer in the U.S. — with nearly 75% of our employees working under collective bargaining agreements — we have always strived to work cooperatively and constructively with the unions that represent our employees,” she added.
While the Kaiser Permanente workers in Western Washington are not ready to strike just yet, Kolppa said a strike vote may come soon.
“I don't know what to think,” Kolppa said. “I don't know if this will be enough or if we might have to go further.”
At the end of their picket, the workers and supporters gathered to debrief. MacPhail gave some encouraging closing words over the megaphone and led the group in chanting, “We will be back.”