Kaiser Permanente employees begin largest healthcare strike in U.S. history

More than 75,000 Kaiser Permanente employees are expected to be out on the picket line Wednesday morning after they couldn’t come to an agreement with management on a new contract.

Union leaders said they were on standby to see if they’d come to an agreement at the last minute but that didn’t happen, though negotiations are still ongoing. 

In San Jose, union members were up before the sun rose, carrying signs that said "Respect." Large crowds of picketers banged on drums and cheered outside the Kaiser facility in the South Bay. 

The coalition of Kaiser Permanente unions said this is the largest healthcare worker strike in U.S. history. It's expected to span hundreds of hospitals and facilities across the country including in California, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, DC.

Employees say they’re protesting unfair labor practices and unsafe staffing levels that end up hurting patients by delaying or denying care. They say the pandemic has worsened working conditions and exacerbated the staffing crisis.

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Kaiser Permanente union members  in San Jose hold picket signs on Day 1 of the largest healthcare strike in U.S. history. Oct. 4, 2023 

"Since the pandemic began 3-and-a-half years ago, a lot of our co-workers have left the industry and Kaiser executives have really failed to replace them," said Ethan Ruskin, a health educator at Kaiser San Jose.  "And to have the staff that we need to take care of our patients." 

In a statement sent early Wednesday, Kaiser officials said they were still at the bargaining table and have been working through the night to come to an agreement. They said there has been a lot of progress, with agreements reached on several proposals late Tuesday.

"We remain committed to reaching a new agreement that continues to provide our employees with market-leading wages, excellent benefits, generous retirement income plans, and valuable professional development opportunities," the Kaiser statement read. 

But Ruskin said the staffing shortage issue, which is a key point, has not been resolved. 

The coalition of unions has been bargaining with Kaiser executives since April, but their contract expired Sept. 30.

Hundreds of positions are included in this union, including radiology techs, emergency department techs, respiratory therapists and behavioral health workers just to name a few.

The plan is for this strike to last three days. But that could change if an agreement is made. 

Ruskin said he's not sure that will happen. 

Yvonne Esquivel, a medical assistant at Kaiser in Gilroy, said no one wants the strike to last too long. 

"We love what we’re doing, we’re here in the health field and that’s to take care of our patients," she said.

But the employees like her felt they had to make a stand to make a change.

"How can we properly take care of our patients?" she asked. "Our patients deserve the quality care. They’re coming here for a reason. They’re coming here because they feel like Kaiser is the best place, but unfortunately, it’s not."