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Kaiser employees plan to picket in Richmond

on September 20, 2011

Forty Richmond Kaiser employees plan to join more than 20,000 Kaiser workers statewide in picketing Thursday to protest administrators’ proposed plan to reduce healthcare and retirement benefits for union workers.

About 4,000 Kaiser caregivers represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers — including 1,500 psychologists, social workers and optical workers in Northern California — face benefit cuts under the proposed contract, said Leighton Woodhouse, NUHW’s director of communications. The crowds are expected to be largest at Kaiser headquarters in Oakland.

But it’s not NUHW employees alone that will make the crowds swell this week—an additional 17,000 Kaiser nurses will join the picket lines in sympathy. The decision by nurses to strike alongside their colleagues comes even though their union, the California Nurses Association, reached a contract agreement earlier this year that took effect Sept. 1 and includes wage increases and no cuts to benefits, according to a statement from Gayle Westfall, Kaiser’s vice president of human resources. Westfield acknowledged NUHW’s right to strike, but described the CNA’s decision to strike in sympathy as a setback.

“Kaiser Permanente and CNA negotiated this contract earlier this year with the mutual goal of labor peace,” Westfield wrote in a statement. “It is disappointing that CNA is asking its members to disrupt patient care and put communities at risk when they have a firm contract in place.”

Patient care concerns, the nurses and workers say, are one of the hot-button issues that prompted the strike.

NUHW has two problems with Kaiser’s proposed contract, Woodhouse said. Firstly, NUHW says that Kaiser will not address staffing issues at its Los Angeles Medical Center, where NUHW represents 1,100 registered nurses. Too few nurses and mental-health professionals on the clock have put LAMC patients at risk, Woodhouse said, but Kaiser is refusing to contractually guarantee that the hospital will maintain certain minimum staffing levels.

“Basically, Kaiser is not living up to the state-mandated ratios,” Woodhouse said by phone from his Los Angeles office this week. “They live up to it on paper, but not really in practice. So patients with high acuity levels are being understaffed by nurses. … You’ve got mental-health patients who are under severe distress, who sometimes have to wait fix to six weeks for an appointment.”

In addition to staffing issues at Kaiser LAMC, NUHW is concerned about Kaiser’s proposal to reduce all NUHW employees’ healthcare and retirement benefits, a cost-cutting measure that would shift partial financial responsibility for NUHW employees’ to the employees, and would take away the guarantee of health coverage for future retirees, Woodhouse said. The proposed contract also includes pension cuts.

“We had achieved a great step forward with Kaiser years ago when Kaiser agreed to provide fully employer-paid healthcare benefits to retirees,” Woodhouse said. “And until now, the culture at Kaiser was that healthcare workers should be provided healthcare benefits that are free; that the employer should take care of the healthcare of those that provide healthcare to others.”

Woodhouse added that Kaiser has “never been more profitable than it is now,” a sentiment that CNA president Deborah Burger echoed.

“They’re draconian cuts considering that they’ve made $1.8 billion or $1.9 billion in profit in the last year,” Burger said. “I honestly don’t know why they decided to go forward with the negotiations in the manner in which they’ve done them, but what we want to make sure is that Kaiser knows that we are supporting our coworkers.”

Kaiser officials were unable to comment on the strike outside the realm of Westfield’s written statement, but the statement did say that Kaiser officials plan to meet with the NUHW over the next few weeks in a good-faith effort to reach an agreement.

In Northern California, NUHW workers and CNA nurses will strike for 24 hours beginning at 6 a.m. on Thursday.

As part of their strike notice, CNA has set up patient-care task-forces at each facility to provide assistance in case of emergency, Burger said. NUHW will also have health professionals available in case of emergency, Woodhouse said.

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