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Workers at Kaiser Permanente are poised to go out on strike

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

More than 75,000 health care workers are walking off the job this morning. They include nurses, ER technicians and lots of others who work at Kaiser Permanente hospitals and medical facilities from coast to coast. It's the largest health care strike in U.S. history. And for more, we've got NPR's Danielle Kaye. Hi, Danielle.

DANIELLE KAYE, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So where is this strike happening, and what does it mean for patients?

KAYE: So the strike is set to happen across the country in California, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Virginia and Washington, D.C. Kaiser has already warned patients that nonemergency appointments might be delayed over the next few days. And in most regions, the strike is expected to last three days until Saturday morning, except on the East Coast, where it'll only run for a day, ending on Thursday morning. Hospitals and emergency departments will stay open. Kaiser has had time to prepare, and they say they've hired people to fill these critical care roles during the strike. And this is happening because all sorts of workers are set to go on strike. That includes nurses, pharmacists, lab technicians, so many others. These are people Kaiser really needs to keep its routine care up and running.

FADEL: So how did it get to this point, that people are ready to go on strike?

KAYE: Yeah. Well, the collective bargaining agreement for workers expired over the weekend without a new agreement in place. The unions want an almost 25% pay raise for all of its members, while Kaiser has countered with about half of that. But what's really driving the strike is a staffing crisis. More than 1 in 10 union positions were vacant as of April, and staffing was an issue before the pandemic. But it's gotten a lot worse during COVID. There's been an exodus of workers over the past few years, and employees say they've been working longer hours with a lot fewer people. And they say the pay and benefits at Kaiser just aren't enough to attract new workers or retain those who are already there. Here's Caroline Lucas. She's the executive director of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions.

CAROLINE LUCAS: Health care workers choose this profession because it's a passion for them. It's a calling. And folks don't feel comfortable staying at jobs where they don't feel like they can give the best patient care possible.

KAYE: And Kaiser says it's almost reached its goal of hiring 10,000 people who are represented by this group of unions by the end of this year. But Lucas says lots of workers are leaving the organization at the same time. And Kaiser, she says, needs to invest more in its workforce to fix those retention issues.

FADEL: And how do workers feel about walking off the job?

KAYE: Well, lots of workers won't be paid for the days they're on strike. And it's really a last resort. But a lot of them feel like they've been pushed to their breaking point during the pandemic. I talked to Megan Mayes. She's a patient access representative in Hillsboro, Ore. She has three young kids, and she says she's barely had time to spend with them since the pandemic hit. She's been working at the hospital 50 hours a week or more.

MEGAN MAYES: There hasn't been any relief. I think we keep waiting for it and hoping that it will come. And it just hasn't. And at this point, four years later, it's not sustainable anymore.

KAYE: Mayes and other workers also told me patient care is suffering because of staff shortages with things like longer wait times for appointments. So they see this strike as an unfortunate but necessary step to improve patient care in the long run.

FADEL: That's NPR's Danielle Kaye. Thank you so much, Danielle.

KAYE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOGS' "THREE-TWO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: October 3, 2023 at 9:00 PM PDT
A previous version of the headline misspelled Kaiser Permanente as Kaiser Permanent.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Danielle Kaye
Danielle Kaye (she/her) is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow. Before joining NPR, Kaye worked as a business reporter at Reuters, where she covered compensation policies and union organizing at technology and retail companies. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 2021 with degrees in Global Studies and French. While studying in Berkeley, Kaye reported and produced for listener-funded radio station KPFA, covering protests and housing issues in California for KPFA's morning public affairs show. She was also a researcher at UC Berkeley's Human Rights Investigations Lab and a news reporter and editor at the student-run newspaper The Daily Californian. Kaye lived with a host family in Dakar, Senegal, in 2019, which inspired her to write her senior thesis about threats to Senegal's artisanal fishing communities.