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Union plans Nov. 22 strike against Kaiser

Kaiser workers on Maui, statewide to strike over wages and staffing

The entrance to Kaiser Permanente’s Wailuku office is shown Wednesday afternoon. Unite Here Local 5, the union representing nearly 2,000 health care workers statewide, including 212 Kaiser workers on Maui, announced plans to strike against the health care provider on Nov. 22 over issues that include wages and short-staffing. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

The union representing nearly 2,000 health care professionals across Hawaii, including 212 Kaiser workers on Maui, said it plans to strike against the health care giant beginning Nov. 22 amid disputes over wages and short-staffing at clinics.

Unite Here Local 5 said the strike will impact 20 Kaiser Permanente facilities all over Hawaii, including the Maui Lani, Kihei, Lahaina and Wailuku facilities.

Bryant de Venecia, communications organizer for Local 5, said that the union represents licensed practical nurses, ward clerks, nurses aides, maintenance and housekeeping staff and lab technicians, among others.

“We don’t want to strike,” de Venecia told The Maui News on Wednesday afternoon. “I’ve been hearing from a lot of our workers, they treat their patients as family. We don’t want to walk out from our jobs, but because Kaiser’s not moving forward, we really have no choice.”

De Venecia said the union’s concerns come down to Kaiser’s wage proposal and short-staffing. A lack of workers had been a problem even before COVID-19 struck, but the pandemic has made things even worse, as staff are forced to adopt new roles or cover different departments or areas, especially in bigger hospitals, de Venecia said. On Maui, for example, workers from Lahaina sometimes cover for Maui Lani, he added.

De Venecia said that the union is also concerned over Kaiser’s proposed two-tier wage system, which he said would lower wages for future hires up to 33 percent, which poses “a threat to future health care workers in the workforce here in Hawaii.”

“We don’t know what’s going to be the impact in terms of community or patient care,” de Venecia said. “This is not making the staff shortage and the thousands of folks who are leaving the industry because of the pandemic, it’s not helping when you’re lowering their wages.”

De Venecia said that in order for the union to consider ending the strike, they would want to see Kaiser abandon the two-tier wage proposal, offer better wage increases and provide a plan to address short-staffing.

Local 5 is part of the Alliance of Health Care Unions, which represents more than 50,000 members, according to a Local 5 news release on Tuesday. In Northwest and Southern California, 32,000 health care workers have already announced plans to strike against Kaiser Nov. 15.

Kaiser, which said it has 1,800 employees represented by Local 5, emphasized that because Kaiser negotiates wages and benefits at a national level, pay does not always match the markets in which Kaiser operates, said Arlene Peasnall, senior vice president of human resources. In many areas, wage rates have risen above the average market wage, including in Hawaii, where Alliance of Health Care Union employees earn about 19 percent the market average.

“The challenge we are trying to address in partnership with our unions is the increasingly unaffordable cost of health care,” Peasnall said. “And the fact is, wages and benefits account for half of Kaiser Permanente’s operational costs.”

On Nov. 2, Kaiser offered Alliance leaders an updated economic proposal that provides Alliance-represented employees as much as 4 percent a year in pay increases, with no takeaways to benefits and retirement, Peasnall said.

“Our proposal simply aims to slow the significant over-market growth in compensation while continuing to reward our employees and fulfill our commitment to our members and patients to provide high-quality, affordable health care,” Peasnall said. “We remain committed to working together with labor for the benefit of our workforce, members and the communities that rely on us. We believe we can reach an agreement with the Alliance that meets our shared interests and avoids an unnecessary and harmful strike, especially as we continue to battle this pandemic.”

If the strike occurs, facilities will be staffed by trained and experienced managers and contingency staff, Peasnall said. Physicians will continue to be available to care for patients.

In recent weeks, Kaiser pharmacists, therapists and mental health clinicians across Hawaii under a separate union also voted to authorize a strike over contract negotiation issues that also included concerns over wages and lower pay for new workers as well as working conditions with some clinics facing shortages. No date has been set for a strike.

Maui Health, a Kaiser affiliate that operates Maui Memorial Medical Center, Kula Hospital and Lanai Community Hospital, said it is not affected by the strikes planned against Kaiser Permanente.

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

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