By Jeff Manning | The Oregonian/OregonLive
About 400 pharmacy technicians and other workers at Kaiser Permanente in Oregon walked off the job Sunday, beginning a 21-day strike.
Another 4,000 Kaiser workers in Oregon and southwest Washington are poised to do the same Wednesday morning in a three-day strike that includes 75,000 Kaiser workers across the health care giant’s vast territory.
“It could be the largest health care strike ever,” said Alan Dubinsky, communications director for Service Employees International Union Local 49. The local union represents certified nursing assistants, emergency room techs, dietary workers and several other categories of workers in more than 60 Kaiser facilities in the region.
“It’s all about staffing,” Dubinsky said. Workers feel that hospital management has created an environment unfair to them and unsafe for patients by not replacing the thousands of employees who walked away during the pandemic.
Kaiser officials said Monday they will continue to negotiate in hopes of averting the strike slated to begin Wednesday.
“We jointly agreed this morning to continue to meet through midday Tuesday if needed, to reach an agreement,” the company said in a written statement. “A strike is not inevitable, and it is certainly not justified.”
Patients should expect Kaiser hospitals and emergency rooms to remain open if a strike isn’t averted, Kaiser said. Facilities will continue to be staffed by physicians, managers and staff. In some cases, Kaiser said, “contingent workers” will augment regular staffers.
Some of Kaiser’s pharmacies, like those in outpatient settings, are temporarily closed. Pharmacies in Kaiser hospitals and medical offices with urgent care facilities will stay open.
Kaiser says it has offered guaranteed across-the-board wage increases totaling 12.5% over 4 years. It has proposed a $21 minimum wage in Washington and Oregon that would go up to $23 by 2026.
Nurses made similar arguments about insufficient staffing in contract talks this summer with Providence Portland Medical Center in Northeast Portland and with Oregon Health & Science University. In both cases, the nurses won lucrative new compensation packages as well new promises about sustained higher staffing levels.
The Kaiser pharmacy employees are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555. They are picketing daily at locations including Kaiser Sunnyside Medical Center in Clackamas and Kaiser Westside Medical Center in Hillsboro.
The pharmacy techs pulled out of the coalition of unions representing the vast majority of workers. They went out on strike earlier and will stay out longer than their coworkers represented by other unions.
“Sometimes you’ve got to declare yourself and make your position known,” said union spokesperson Miles Eshaia.
Kaiser pleaded with workers to remain on the job.
“We understand and share the frustration, the burnout, and the exhaustion,” Kaiser said. ” We will absolutely do the right thing for our employees, to support them, reward them and be there for them. We also have a responsibility to make sure our high-quality care is affordable and available to meet our members’ needs.”