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Kaiser pharmacists, therapists in Hawaii vote in favor of strike

Decision gives unions option to call strike when they choose

Kaiser Permanente’s Maui Lani clinic is shown Friday evening. Kaiser pharmacists and therapists across Hawaii voted to authorize a strike against the health care giant, citing concerns over wages in bargaining and working conditions made works by the pandemic. — The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

Kaiser pharmacists and therapists on Maui and other islands voted this week to authorize a strike, citing concerns over wages in bargaining and working conditions made worse by the pandemic.

More than 1,500 pharmacists, physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists in Hawaii and California faced the question of whether to strike during voting that took place from Sunday through Thursday.

Results provided to The Maui News on Friday showed that Hawaii employees voted overwhelmingly for the strike — 94 percent in favor among the United Pharmacists of Hawaii (with 89 percent turnout) and 87 percent of physical and occupational therapists in favor (with 93 percent turnout).

Strike authorization doesn’t mean the strike will happen immediately, but rather gives the bargaining teams the option of calling a strike when they choose, and for a duration to be determined, according to the United Nurses Association of California/Union of Health Care Professionals representing the workers. Labor laws require unions in the health care industry to submit a 10-day notice to the employer before going out on strike.

“Primarily I’m worried that the current situation could be jeopardizing patient safety,” said one Kaiser pharmacist on Maui who requested anonymity out of concern for their job. “We have considerable pharmacist and technician turnover in the pharmacy because of the working conditions, and it’s just so busy. We just can’t keep up and it’s stressful. A lot of people end up leaving or transferring out to other facilities.”

The strike vote would affect Kaiser hospitals and medical centers on Maui, Kauai, Oahu and Hawaii island, according to the unions, which are representing the workers in negotiations for their first union contracts with Kaiser Permanente. A Maui Health spokesperson said Saturday that the strike would not affect Kaiser-affiliated Maui Health, which operates Maui Memorial Medical Center, Kula Hospital and Lanai Community Hospital.

The unions criticized “draconian proposals that depress wages for current workers” and Kaiser negotiators’ plans to slash wages for new workers.

“We care about Kaiser Permanente being able to have the proper number of experienced pharmacists in place to do our work safely and accurately,” Jake Elsbernd, a pharmacist based on Oahu who serves on the union bargaining team, said in a news release Oct. 18. “I would want there to be a quality pharmacist taking care of medications for me and my family.”

Arlene Peasnall, senior vice president of human resources at Kaiser Permanente, said in a statement that “Kaiser Permanente is indisputably one of the most labor-friendly organizations in the United States.”

“We have the longest-running and most successful labor management partnership in the nation,” Peasnall said. “As the largest health care union employer in the U.S. — with nearly 75 percent of our employees working under collective bargaining agreements — we have always strived to work cooperatively and constructively with the unions that represent our employees.”

Kaiser has been in bargaining with the Alliance of Health Care Unions — which includes the two unions representing the Hawaii pharmacists and therapists — since April, Peasnall said. While their national contract expired at the end of September, Kaiser has continued to bargain with the unions.

“We have made progress in many important areas and have extended an initial economic offer with wage increases and no takeaways to the current retirement plan or our excellent, market-leading benefits,” Peasnall said.

Kaiser explained that its wage rates have risen above the average market wage in Hawaii, a trend that is “unsustainable.” Wages and benefits account for half of Kaiser Permanente’s operational costs, which is part of why health care is becoming increasingly unaffordable, the company said.

“We ask that our employees reject a call to walk away from the patients who need them,” Peasnall said. “Our priority is to continue to provide our members with high-quality, safe care. In the event of any kind of work stoppage, our facilities will be staffed by our physicians along with trained and experienced managers and contingency staff.”

The Maui pharmacist said workers don’t want to go on strike either. However, problems that existed before the pandemic have grown worse over the past two years. Already working with fewer staff than in recent years, local pharmacies suffered greater staffing shortages when pharmacists or technicians tested positive for COVID-19 or were exposed. Providing prescriptions to patients became increasingly stressful, especially when patients were positive for the virus and needed their medication delivered to their cars outside by staff in full protective gear.

“We tried to make it as convenient as possible for the patient so they wouldn’t have to jeopardize anyone else, but it did put a lot of burden on our workflow,” the pharmacist said.

Employees did, in a show of good faith, give up two years of pay raises “hoping that we would be able to get an equitable agreement, but that doesn’t seem to be the case,” the pharmacist said, adding that they are asking for fair and competitive salaries and benefits, ample staffing and less focus on “metrics,” such as how many prescriptions pharmacists process during a certain period of time and what ratings they’re given by patients.

“They’re more worried about numbers as opposed to Mrs. Smith getting her right medication at the right dosing for the right price,” the pharmacist said.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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